CHANGES

IMG_0043 (2)Last night I sat in the little discussion group and listened to a woman talk about the changes she is going through adjusting to a new stage in her life. Her youngest child has gone off to college, and she starts a new journey defining who she is without children in her house.

All of us as parents face that day and time when our greatest joy is that our children venture out in to the world as adults; joy that they made it that far, joy that for the time being the choices they make seem positive and exciting, but sometimes it comes with the pain of realizing that decades of focus on the well-being of someone else is no longer possible, or appropriate. Yet nothing will ever be the same again.

My focus drifted away as I absorbed her pain, remembering my own challenges as my children left the nest, compounded by the end of a long marriage and divorce. The blast of the horn on the long freight train rumbling by on the nearby track separated me temporarily from the words she continued to speak, but not the touch of her emotional tone.

Outside the sky had begun to darken, the setting sun touching the tops of a few nearby clouds with magenta and orange as their underbellies deepened into gray. The blue of a few minutes before paled also, making the sky that much more striking. I was grateful I had chosen the seat I had, facing the front of the building where the plate glass windows looked out not only on the street, but a piece of that sunset, too.

The woman’s husband sat near her, nodding toward the nearby box of tissues long before any of the rest of us realized her struggle to speak. I took my cue from him and pushed the box closer to his wife so she could easily pull one out.

Once again I felt a momentary envy as I sensed his attunement to his wife still present after the mighty struggles I knew they had been through over their many years together. It is not that I regret making the decision to divorce when I feel this, but rather a sorrow that a certain dream of continuity had to fade and come to an end so that I could evolve into the person I am today.

I remember many years ago as my brother lay dying a conversation about some money he wanted to leave me. “It’s for educational purposes,” he said. “For you, or for your kids in case any of you want to go to graduate school.” I know how hard it was at times for him to pay for his doctorate at an Ivy League University without such a lump sum to draw on.

“Of course, I would consider leaving your husband a major education of sorts, too,” he said, smiling. “So do whatever you want with it.”

I have been working hard on forgiveness of my ex-husband lately. Forgiveness of the things for which I feel a very deep resentment, like the fact that he did and still does his best to drive a wedge between me and our children. Indignation that in his desire to be mean to me, it has sometimes put our kids in the uncomfortable spot of seeming to have to choose between which parent they will spend time with, or feel closer to.

He has been successful in this intent in many ways, but the blessing for me is that my kids have not cut me off, though at times I still feel ostracized. Then there is the whole list of things which I felt were unforgiveable sins in our marriage Those “sins” eventually adding up to a breaking point for me.

The passage of time and a whole lot of work on myself has changed some of my perceptions about that relationship. I heard a different definition of “sin” a few years ago that holds true for me today. “Sin” is a term from archery that means “missing the mark.” Yes, indeed, I can say the ills of my marriage certainly involved missing the mark in so many of the areas of dreams and hopes and expectations.

The news for me is that I have finally begun to look at how I might have played into the sins for which my ex-husband holds me accountable. Accountable even to the point of trying to amputate me from his existence; past or present, as wife, or friend, or even mother to our children.

This is an undeniably mighty resentment I see clearly from the height of my high horse. It is my perception that I am in the right, and his resentment is, of course, unfounded. Perhaps the time has come for me to dismount and ask myself, “What was my part in this?” If relationship is really supposed to be a two-way street then what is my 50% that still needs to be cleaned up?

In a few weeks it will be seven years since our divorce became final. I moved out, but in many ways I have not moved on. I have been judgmental, and petty. I have held on to resentments and disappointment and anger. I have inflicted punishment, where possible, perhaps the greatest of which was to give up and leave. I have derived satisfaction from his pain and limitation, both in the past and now. So who is it today, this minute, who suffers from my thoughts and actions? I do.

“Pray for your enemies,” is an injunction I have read a thousand times in spiritual literature of many forms. I understood the benefits of this, but only on an intellectual level before. I have recently begun to experience what a gift it is to do this in present time, seriously, and from the heart.

“Wish for your enemies all the good that you would bring to yourself,” it says in a recent reading I encountered.

A great frustration I have felt about my marriage is that somewhere along the way I got on my ex-husband’s “shit list.” Nothing I ever did seemed to get me off that list. I became the enemy without ever seeing how.

The revelation is in realizing I had such a list myself. He was the one at the very top. This simple act of prayer, of wishing my ex-husband well, even for a minute, is miraculous. He has not only moved down in the ranking on my list, but seems to have disappeared entirely. There is room now to let go. I can “put down the rope in this game of tug-of-war” as they say.

One definition of forgive is to “give up all claim” on the one forgiven. Yes, I think I have finally done so.

“It’s all God,” a certain guru is quoted as saying. That means that you and I, and my ex-husband, too, are all God. In ceasing to attack the man to whom I was married with “justified” thought and action, I have ceased to attack myself.

Thank you, God. What a relief.

PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION

When I Was Five

I listened to the meeting leader read a page from one of our daily readers on perfection, and the ills that trying to be perfect can bring to your life. As we went around the room and people shared their thoughts on the subject, most people spoke about the effort it took to try to live up to impossible standards. Perfectionism leads to disappointment in yourself and wears you out.

One person talked about the fact that she has a job where there isn’t enough funding to hire a second person to take on some of the casework at her social services job, so sometimes she doesn’t get done what is expected of her. She often takes work home on the weekend and uses her own time to try to catch up. She thought maybe doing her best was good enough. She didn’t have to be perfect.

Perfectionism is different than having high standards. Perfectionism means that when you have ten things to do in a day on your “to do” list, you have to get all ten things done whether it is humanly possible to do so or not. You put in extra hours just to get that list crossed off no matter what. The likely result is that you don’t get any of those things done well, but you get them done. Then you get to resent other people who don’t have your work ethic. You often don’t get any recognition for trying hard, either.

I could relate. In my family of origin, I was expected to be a top student. I had a high IQ, after all, so I should get straight A’s in everything. It didn’t matter whether a subject was tedious, or boring to me, I was expected to perform according to someone else’s idea of what a good job looked like. If I had four A’s and one B, I heard about the B, not my success in other areas.

I listened to other people’s ruminations and suddenly a little lightbulb went off. Perfectionism, for me, meant that I had a lot of secrets. The farther away from a particular expectation I felt, the deeper and darker that secret became. The more I heard about how imperfect I was, the deeper the shame I felt about myself.

Life, in the normal course of events, hands you a lot of trying situations to deal with. Sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are big. Failure wasn’t even on the radar, never mind that it might be a helpful stepping off place to a new way of being in the world.

Once, when I was a senior in high school, I painted a picture I liked of mountains by the ocean. I had had no formal art training since “art” was considered a waste of time by my mother, but I painted anyway. Both my parents inspected this painting.

“That sucks,” my mother announced, and walked away.

My father looked at it in silence for a couple of minutes. “The mountains are really very good,” he said. “I like the depth and light you’ve captured. The ocean doesn’t work quite as well, however. It’s a little too flat. Maybe you could try again and give it more life.”

My father was the artist. He was an award-winning landscape architect. I appreciated his honesty, but most of the time he kept his opinion about things to himself. My inner critic is my mother’s voice. Nothing was remotely good enough, no matter how much effort I put into anything.

They say we marry someone most like our problematic parent, in an effort on some level to heal the wounded inner child. If that’s true, I certainly married my mother.

For a while I was really into writing poetry. I wrote a poem I thought was particularly good one day and showed it to my husband. I interrupted his TV watching of a movie I knew he’d seen several times.

“Please read this and tell me what you think of it,” I said. I put the poem in his outstretched hand from behind the couch he was sitting on and stood, waiting for his opinion.

“That’s nice,” he said after reading it, laying the paper on the couch beside him and returning to the TV without ever glancing at me. “Now what are you going to do with it?”

It took me a long time to realize that maybe I should show my creative work to people who might actually like it, and avoid the ones I knew never would. It also took me a long time to realize maybe rejection had more to do with the critic than with my work, or especially with me.

I still haven’t taken any formal art training, but I have learned a method of painting called “process painting.” I’ve learned some good stuff through doing this. It specifically helps you deal with the places in your painting where you get derailed by the inner critic. The majority of the time that wasn’t too difficult to get around, even though I often stood in a class with wonderful artists and tried to paint.

“I’m not a trained artist,” I could say to myself. “So what if my painting is not as gorgeous as the person’s next to me?”

One day I was standing in a class painting and came to a spot where I got stuck. “That painting looks like a five-year old did it,” my inner critic sneered. I stepped back and looked at it.

“Yeah, it kinda does look like that,” I responded.

I remembered being a little kid and how much I had liked playing with paint. I remembered the sunlight as it came through the big windows. It was definitely a happy place.

“Wow! My inner five-year old is alive and well,” I thought. “How cool is that?”

I finished the painting easily.

My mother is dead and I divorced my husband. I like myself ever so much more now than I have at times in the past. When the voice of that inner critic rears her ugly head, I can usually say, “Thank you for your opinion,” and move on.

I still struggle with some of my “secrets;” things I am afraid of sharing for the judgment I might receive. I’ve learned, however, that most of the time, when I find the courage to talk about what I perceive as my own failings, I end up feeling much closer to the person with whom I’ve shared. Most of the time other people have struggled with very similar issues, no matter how dark.

It’s such a relief not to have to be perfect.

Progress, not perfection, is the way for me.

PORTRAIT OF MY MOTHER

IMG_0065

I hesitate to call my mother an alcoholic, still. She definitely had a love affair with the stuff. Her two closest friends drank like fish. My mother spent an awful lot of time drinking with them. She also smoked three packs a day. Billboards at the time showed doctors smoking, too.

My mother used to bitch that Friend #1 would come over and drink all her Seagram’s. When I was a kid, and later in our other house when I was a teenager, I would come home from school and often find my mother and her friend sitting on the couch talking and drinking for the couple of hours between my arrival and my father’s return from work.

“Hi sweetie,” my mother would say, waving the hand with the cigarette. “How was school today?” They would tolerate my presence a few minutes, and then it was time for me to get lost.

My father would come home, greet my mother’s friend, wait for her to finish her drink, and walk the friend out to her car. My father did that because he thought he was being a gentleman to do so, not because said friend ever had any problem walking or driving after an afternoon sucking down her Seagram’s. This was in the day when you could drive with very little worry that the police would bother you about your blood alcohol level.

My mother drank Bacardi Light on ice. Sometimes she added water. The ice crunched as she shoveled it out of the ice bucket and dropped it in the glass. “Clinkety clink,” it went, hitting the bottom of the glass.

She bought both the Bacardi and the Seagram’s in half gallon bottles. I assume she matched her friend drink for drink. I never saw Friend #1 with a full glass when my mother’s was empty. I never saw my mother drink a soda, either, while her friend was drinking the booze. So who was my mother to point the finger at her friend?

My mother complained one day when, after the friend had gone home for the evening, she opened the wall bar we used to have in the living room. She noticed she would need to make a run for some more Seagram’s.

“Friend #1 costs me a fortune,” she muttered. “She’s an alcoholic.”

Friend #2 and my mother had been friends since childhood. They were like two peas in a pod. I loved Friend #2, and often wished she had been my mother, especially when as a teenager I came to detest my own mother. My mother worshipped the ground this friend walked on. She lived in the city, in a big old pre-war rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side close to Columbia University. Her husband was an economics professor there. We lived in suburbia.

“Look what I got for my birthday,” my mother said as she walked in the door one day and opened the wall bar. “It even has my initials on it,” She waved it toward me so I could see. “Friend #2 gave it to me so I can go places and not have to worry whether they have Bacardi available at parties we go to.”

It was a silver pint-sized flask with a screw-on top held in place by a little chain. She proceeded to fill it up with a bottle from the bar. “It fits in my purse,” she said, smiling.

I’d already heard the story about why she drank Bacardi. “Gin makes me sick,” told me once. “Bacardi is the only liquor that doesn’t do that.” That was the 1960’s, if my memory serves me correctly. Long before rum, Bacardi Light in particular, was a common-place liquor stocked in home bars.

Most evenings in the summer we spent at the beach club my family belonged to. My father would arrive on the six-o’clock launch from shore, and we would have dinner on the beach of the little island in Long Island Sound that was part of the club. My mother would whip her flask out of the cooler and pour herself a drink or two.

My father drank gin and pink lemonade. He made it with mostly melted frozen pink lemonade concentrate from a can in the cooler, and ice. “Can I have a taste?” I would ask, after I got older. It was delicious.

My mother was not a convivial drinker. By the time I came along and reached my teen years, my older siblings were out of the house. I learned to watch it around my mother when she drank. She often went from a relaxed, friendly drinker, to a witch-on-wheels in what seemed like a sip or two. Good luck guessing which sip or two of which drink would transform her.

“Friend #2 drinks herself to sleep at night,” my mother informed me once. “Something bad happened to her when she was young, and she’s afraid of the dark.” I had less daily exposure to Friend #2, but I never thought twice about her drinking. She was always a sweetheart.

“She’s an alcoholic,” my mother pronounced of this friend, also.

I took counseling training in addictions therapy after I was married. My mother came over to my house one afternoon to visit. I was sitting at my dining room table with books around me while I wrote a paper for my training. My mother stood over my shoulder, a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, reading what I was working on. She stood in silence for a few minutes. “This is all fine and dandy,” she said as she read. “But there are no alcoholics in our family.”

My mother has been dead a few years now. I am no longer young. To this day if I hear ice thrown in a glass in a particular way, or if someone swirls half melted ice against the side of a glass in the dregs of a drink, I think of her. I see her standing there, a particular look in her eyes, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other.

Who am I to say she drank too much?

PHOTO SHOOT

IMG_0091

Remembering,
I fill my soul with the scent
Of the sun-filled Spring day,
And the hours we spent on the little dam
At the end of the pond, watching
The water rush over the wall.

Black with depth and algae,
On the pond side, silver
Sparkling as a thousand coins
On the other,
Its joyful splashing mirrored words
Flowing from our hearts with such ease
Even the silences
Rang with their song.

I used to look at the handfuls of pictures
Your camera clicked off that day,
Searching for a tangible beginning
To a love that burned for years.

But black and white made it flat,
Like the pond, colorless, even in the sun,
And at the end, as we grew apart,
Finally faded, like a mist that meets the day.

Now, after years, and in the absence
Of such tactile souvenirs,
My mind leaps, dancing in the sunlight
Of the time recalled.

I hear again the music of your voice
Mingle with the rush of water,
A smell of dampness and wet leaves,
Carrying the sound into distance.

EAST TO WEST

IMG_0107

Fairy spirits flutter like Miller moths tonight,
Dancing through the house, twenty deep in the kitchen,
I suck them up with the vacuum wand,
But the magical beings only seem to multiply
For each I send to the oblivion of the vacuum dust bag.

They rest, hanging from the ceiling above me,
Climb the wall next to my overstuffed chair,
Bang the sound of water dripping against
The plastic ceiling light, tap, tap, tap,
Migrating early because of drought.

I know what they really are, despite the soft dust
Falling in the air under the lampshade,
Miller moths, indeed, little masters of acrobatics,
Shapeshifting, interdimensional visitors, who,
Wearing brown and tan tree bark designs,
Disappear behind pictures, and plates, and
Along the edges of cabinets.

Even under the mud boots by the front door
I find piles of ten or 15 hiding in safety and
A little bit of damp, they fly out and startle me
When I want to sweep.

My fear of flying bugs darts out, joins them,
A tiny thread of their mad, oscillating spiral upward,
Around, around, at last one good thought comes,
Moths don’t bite, even if they are little spirits
Searching for the mountains, in disguise.

Around, around, I back to my body,
They, up into the afternoon light,
In a few short days they are gone,
The predator vacuum idle again,
Except for the wary path around it,
Taken by the dog.

EDGES

Beautiful Carvings
EDGES

She’s a lily white, suburban New York City raised
Born, bred, socially, politically, educationally correct girl
With a small town, Midwestern-minded bigot mother
Who told her not to play with the Italian girls
Even the ones with doctor/lawyer fathers
Or Democrats, or Episcopalians, either,
And later, she was supposed to stay away from
Bronx boyfriends, Catholics, though her father was one,
Anyone from the north side of the tracks, and on and on,
This day’s whim not tomorrow’s or yesterday’s,
She might have died right there, dried up, ceased, but…

Into that tapestry was woven one hot-tempered Jamaican
Rum-drinking, big-hearted, baby-loving caretaker
Who wasn’t afraid of anything.

The baby and the Jamaican, they formed a bond like concrete,
Like superglue, like Canada geese, and neither spoke Wonder Bread,
Pepperidge Farm White sliced sandwich bread very well,
Refined white table sugar in a silver bowl
The baby climbed up to eat and spill on the mahogany table,
So sweet it burned going down, sat there gurgling in her stomach,
No, instead they spoke a savory stew of grunts and chopped sounds,
Midnight breathy whispers, long-legged night biting language,
Voodoo, incense, bloody things sacrificed and burned,
Love so deep your heart goes out, turns outside in, dancing
Drooling, moonlit darkness, body bugs chewing, pure baby woman love.

That tiny-town, narrow minded woman mother sniffed out that love,
No way jealous, threw out that rum-drinker, said she was a booze thief,
Bigot bottle-marking rum drinker herself, threw out that midnight love,
The dark warm ground the seeds sleep in, damp mud-skin embrace,
So tight it hurts, fills that empty place, out like so much trash, unbagged,
Back to plain saltines and grape jelly, broke that baby’s heart,
Smashed it, sledge-hammer-road-kill-smear broke it, baby
Thinking maybe it was dream-time woman love, all child-sided,
But twenty years later, out of the blue, the darkness, and this is true,
The mother broke down and told her true, a call came in, moonlit,

“HOW’S MY BABY NOW?” the caller asked.

IN MY SON’S ROOM

IMG_0032

In my son’s room
All is quiet except
For the whirr of the ceiling fan.
The breeze creates
A perfect sleeping temperature,
Two teenagers lie still,
His friend on the pull out chair
Topped with curly red hair
Exactly like a sheep’s
Before shearing.
It’s noon and time to get up
But there is something
So quiet and gentle
About the air and their sleep
I can’t quite wake them,
My eyes catch suddenly
Perfect, the fingers and nails
Exactly the length and shape
Of his hand, my brother’s,
My son’s hand lying
On the black sheet
Reaching out
From under the white comforter
Even the knuckles and bones
Exactly the same
As his uncle’s, my brother’s,
Relaxed, a soft stance,
I feel my brother sharply
His presence palpable
Eerie sometimes,
How genetics magically
For a whole timeless moment
Call back the people
Who are dead.

CCG 8/13/06

This is yet another poem I thought I would share with you. I hope you like it!