Life seems to be serving up the same lessons that I seem to either forget or think I will eventually master. In this week’s servings there was nothing over the top out of the ordinary, but none-the-less the challenges of parenting and adulting and relationshiping drudged up old responses that I thought I had out grew. Just like an old, familiar space my responses were filled with anxiety and worry and a nagging voice that I-am-just-not-doing-enough and that I-will-never-be-enough.
These are the ghosts of my past who somehow fill my present and urge me to problem solve a future that still has yet to become.
And so I do the old patterns that I’ve learned do not serve me well and this is that I try to control for the circumstances in which I have no control. Usually how this looks is I try to out do myself– be better– be perfect– be a perfect mom– present a competent, well-put-together adult self for co-workers, be the best listener to my friends, have the patience of a saint for my children, stave off exhaustion or weariness, appear brave, commit to being a giver and resist being a receiver…
I know this is usually a fruitless, soul draining endeavor for me. I know that the more I live in my head to be perfect and to present perfection the less I live authentically. Authentic for me is to be in the moment– open to whatever life offers so that I can learn and grow. Authentic also means that I am where I am… I’m giving what I have… I’m receiving what I can hold and I’m listening in the here and now.
And I’ve learned in the four decades of my life that the efforts to control exhaust me and wear me thin yet, I found myself doing this by default– just easing into this old pattern without giving it a second thought. In my 20’s and 30’s this likely would go on for a long time, but thanks-be to the development of skills like mindfulness and self-awareness I was able to eventually notice that this pattern had snuck back up. I was able to evaluate myself and make some different decisions regarding the anxiety and stress I was bearing and the response I wanted to extend to myself.
When I got down to it I realized that the anxiety I was holding was about an uncertain future that I have very little to no control over. I mean to get really honest with myself I had to realize that I cannot predict or control what is to come and that scares the shit out of me.
I can pour every ounce of parenting energy and wisdom into my children, but what they do with that… how they actualize is not in my control.
I can love with every ounce of love my heart and body can muster and I can’t control the outcome and the return of love or of loss or of illness or of death. (Loving my mother meant taking care of her body and her health toward the fruit of her returning to complete health– I could not control for how her illness was going to compromise her and ultimately take her)
I can make all the ‘smart’, future forward career investment decisions to ensure a future of bright opportunities and financial security, but I can’t guarantee that these opportunities will be extended toward me.
And this lesson presented to me what it always presents to me– that what I have is right now. I have today.
A few years ago, I did some crazy stuff. I left everything behind: a marriage, a career, a community, a belief system– on the notion that leaving the toxic aspects of my life would lead to more health and growth. I had a certain kind of optimism or hope about that decision.
In terms of my mental and emotional health I can say that I’ve seen the fruits of that decision produce the capacity for me to think and to breathe and to live in peace. It’s in part, why I can presently be more mindful, but in terms of what the future holds I have no certainties and I think that some days I’m still waiting and watching with bated breath– I’m peering into the future, anxieties rising, lungs full– wanting, longing to control the outcomes. And then life (sometimes in gentle ways and sometimes in not so gentle ways) brings me right back to where I am and says stay.right.here. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You have today. You have this moment. Stay right here and listen– don’t lose this moment. Don’t let it slip away. Bask in it. Let the sun shine on your face and breathe, because this is what you have and this is what you can be certain of– this- right- here.
Today is my mom’s 64th birthday. She died this past January and the year has invited me into many reflections on our relationship. While she was alive we spent quite a bit of time trying to get the other one to see the legitimacy of our existence. Now that she’s not here and it’s quiet and there is no more proving and haranguing her to see I just have my reflections and they have taken an unexpected turn. I imagine that it is the quiet I needed to be able to see things differently—to see things and to see her with more compassion and grace and pure longing without strings and expectations.
Psychologists and counselors always talk about attachment between mother and infant when looking at how adjusted an adult is in the world. Let’s just say that my attachment to my mother was incredibly complicated. I didn’t feel attached. I felt on my own from as little as I can remember, but then I see these pictures of her and I and I wonder if my memory of my attachment to her is just fuzzy. She was young, but she looked happy and we looked at peace when we were together. However, my memories bring me to many occasions on my own. My parents were unhappy and there was civil unrest in our home and I remember plotting and planning my escape if things should completely come undone. I felt like a kite that was attached loosely to human hands and in the event that I should slip away or be let go I should have a strategy for how I should land.
On the days when the storms would roll in I would expect the house to come off its foundation, but it never did and my parents would stay together and we’d have some reprieve for a few days to a week until the grey took over…
When I got older and I was a tween to teenager the rumblings pulled me into the heart of the storm where I played some role of referee, peace maker or sponge for all the spill over between my parents. My mom was loud and made her thoughts and feelings heard; my father would retreat in depression and silence and so it was easy for me to blame her—I didn’t see that both styles were forms of violence and manipulation. I just saw her aggression because it so often came at me or my brother that I despised her and we had no attachment to protect us or harbor us for the storms.
When I wasn’t playing mediator for the tensions between my parents I was a parenting my younger brothers. My parent’s preoccupation with their conflicts and poor self-esteem and mom’s illness required me to parent and this produced a weird mixture of resentment and fierce loyalty to my brothers.
At 13 and 14 and 15 and 16 and 17 I was really trying my best to do good and to secure love, but the combination I had in my hands seemed to fail me and my family and my mother resented my involvements and so it was in these times I wished Claire Huxtable was my mother. Claire Huxtable was that perfect mixture of beauty, sense of humor and grace. She was a rock for her family—working as a lawyer, yet always ready to engage her children and all the mischief they’d find themselves in. She wasn’t vindictive or resentful… She loved being a mother and a wife and she did it all so seamlessly and I wanted her to be my mother. I loved the way that she talked—with wisdom and grandness and grit. She was the one I wanted. I loved how her smile would spread across her face at the end of a conflict with her children and how she would pull them close in for hugs and kisses. She didn’t let her kids get away with shit and her love was never questioned. I wanted all of that and I thought only Claire could provide it so I wanted her.
As a teenager I couldn’t really see my mom. I could only see what I thought I needed. It would take years of therapy and heart searching to realize that my mom, in all her toiling and struggling and pushing and pulling, she was trying to use the combination she’d been given, too.
Before she died we talked about these things. I mean for years we talked about these dynamics—we acknowledged their existence and we managed to do so and come out alive. Even still, I wondered if my mom loved me and if I there was the slightest chance I had made her proud.
The last several years of her life were difficult. For obvious reasons, the mystery of her illness and the ways in which her body was slowing closing up shop one organ at a time made it incredibly difficult. Relationally it was hard because we didn’t always agree on the course that should be taken, but we muddled through it together. Her rock solid willfulness and unyielding stubbornness drove me completely mad. We would come up with a plan of action and on her own she’d decide to do something different—like the time that she was told her heart and kidneys were failing and she decided that she was going to quit all medical interventions to try an herbal remedy and diet instead. I had to learn to accept that she had the right to make her own, adult decisions—even though I kept thinking, “Why won’t you fight to stay here—for me and for your grandkids”?
Over time I realized that my mom was also looking for a mother’s love. Her mom had left her when she was about 10 or 11 years old and my mom being the oldest daughter raised her younger siblings (all 6 of them). In order to graduate high school, she would take her two- year old sister to class with her. Her father left before she was born and she always questioned her lovability. I started to wonder what it would be like to have a child at 22 after you’d already raised a family… I wondered how that felt. Raising two kids of my own, I imagined it was exhausting and disillusioning. There was never time for my mom to be a kid and so by the time I came along I think my mom was ‘mothered’ out. I could never fault her for that and despite the rough edges she did mother me.
My mom taught me things that I couldn’t learn from Claire Huxtable. My mom taught me how to be yourself. Whether you liked her or not…with my mom—she was who she was and she inhabited her skin unapologetically. I didn’t always understand her background and pride in her Filipino/Hawaiian cultural upbringing, but despite all the ways people tried to twist her to be more adaptable to white culture… She never did. She loved her kimchee, rice, soy sauce and green mangos and peas and pork and she did not care if you thought less of her for what she ate, did or said.
My mom did what felt natural to her. She’d answer the door in hot pink sweat pants and her hair all wild and pinned in random places with bobby pins and I-would-be-mortified. I didn’t know how important that would be for me to witness her in this way. She didn’t get all ‘cuted’ up for anyone—she did what she wanted because it felt good to her.
My mom said what was on her mind. She didn’t mince words and she was horrible at filtering. When people would make a mistake at the grocery store I’d pray under my breath that my mom would not see it or overlook it, because if she didn’t then I knew the person would get to hear what my mom thought about that and I’d want to slink away and melt into a puddle.
My mom did what she wanted and didn’t let status quo norms say she couldn’t. She had always wanted to dance hula, but wasn’t able to when she was a child. When she was in her late 40’s-early 50’s she started taking hula classes. Within a few years she was teaching classes… people commissioned her for all kinds of events. She danced for parades, anniversary celebrations, birthday parties, carnivals, etc. She was such a beautifully exquisite dancer. She excelled in her dance group and people were in awe of her talent. She-gave-two-shits-about what people said she could do or not do.
I always thought my mom had one volume: loud. As a young woman struggling to be a ‘good’ woman I thought how impolite and brash of her, but now I know that my mom laughed not in her throat but from the bottom of her gut because when you have to laugh then for God’s sake let it rip. She had an infectious laugh that reminded you why it is good to live.
Since she died I have been thinking about all these qualities of her and realizing that I couldn’t have survived these forty years without what she has taught me. More importantly, I wouldn’t want to be taught any differently because for the bulk of my life I have tried to make people happy and what I realized is that when I was doing that I wasn’t living at all. The challenges that life has presented me with has needed me to have the same kind of authentic, gritty, scrappy, You-can’t-have-me mentality that my mom taught me. Her survival has become my own.
Today I realize that she was exactly the right mother for me. Claire Huxtable is great, but not who I needed. I needed what my mom taught me—I needed to observe her and learn from her. I needed to grow and without the ingredients my mom gave me I don’t think it would have been as possible. She was the right mom for me.
A little less than two years ago I decided to leave.
I made a decision to leave a position of 10 years at the local church that I served, while (at some point) also deciding to leave a marriage of 15 years. I left a whole life behind.
It’s complicated and I never knew that these two events would overlap or coincide with one another, but it’s the way things worked out. Many who know of these transitions or are even reading this now may be saying– “Wow, what a nutcase”. But most never knew the pain. And so to use the well known saying, “You can’t understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”. Well, that feels appropriate for now.
Maybe over time I’ll be sharing more of my story, as it might be helpful to others, but for now I share what I’ve learned over the past two-ish years about transitions. (This will likely be over several blog entries)
Some of the hardest transitions have to do with divorce, death and identity and there are no road maps for these transitions. Maybe that would be easier in some way, but here’s a freeing thought: the path is really all our own— for better or for worse. The decision or circumstance around the change is deeply personal. And guess what? So is the path through the transition. That said, it’s really nobody else’s place to assign judgement, criticism or critique about how or what you are doing on that path. You get to be the one who invites whoever you want to be on that path with you– joining you in exploring and finding insight & wisdom to navigate these sometimes shark infested waters.
And to those who feel that they have the authority or take the opportunity to force their viewpoints on you when you are walking this path well feel free to push back. There is nothing wrong with letting those know to, “Back off– back WAAAY the F off”, because it is not their place or their path. This is sacred ground meant for those that can handle with care, humility and kindness– all others, no entry. Know that this is not unkindness– this is firmness to protect the space you will need to heal, grow and move forward.
In the next few entries I’ll post some of the topics of transition, but I’ll leave this entry by saying that the in-between of transitions can often feel like a kind of pit– not like a deep, black hole but like a plateau-ish space that is in-between the thing that was left behind and the new thing that you’re moving toward.
The plateau can be marked with all kinds of emotions: confusion, grief, discomfort, loneliness– even anger. It is often uncomfortable and when people ask how you are it is hard to come up with any words to describe how you are feeling or what is even going on. It’s like trying on a suit that is four times too big and trying to figure out how to make it work so that it puts out the appearance that it fits you and it expresses some semblance of your personality and style. The longer you wear the suit and reflect on it the more you begin to ask, “Who am I, anyway”?
This is awkward– and so the instinct here is to run and to get out of this stage of transition as fast as you can. This space is the most ambiguous of the stages of transition and it can feel as though one is not moving, but just standing still.
Pause for a moment. Don’t rush. This stage is a vital part of the process. There is something to be learned and listened to in this moment. And although, it’s uncomfortable and difficult and– even painful it is an important stage. In his book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes William Bridges talks about this shift and he states that you cannot move into the new without the old ending. This in-between state which Bridges calls ‘The Neutral Zones’ is something we have to go through and not around.
So you might as well sit back and try to incorporate a few things at this stage:
1) Stop fighting & Surrender. The struggling about and trying to fist your way through this stage is only suspending the inevitable. So relax and accept where you are at.
2) Pause & be patient.
“A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” Henri Nouwen
3) Take this pause to write your autobiography or your passage journey. Find time alone– reflect and listen.
4) Be ever so kind with yourself. You haven’t done anything wrong to be in this particular space in the process– it’s just a natural part of the process so do some self-care and have grace for yourself in all the awkward moments.