Skeletons in Our Closet

10 Dec

Lately I’ve been reflecting deeply on how personal skeletons surface in relationships. Our personal wounds can leave us in dark spaces, where we struggle to give or receive love. Years ago (as in twenty), I was drawn to a story called “Skeleton Woman”, which Clarissa Pinkola Estes features in her beautiful book, Women Who Run With The Wolves. The tale so resonated with me that I painted illustrations to go with the story. Paraphrasing, the story goes as follows:

There once was a young woman who so angered her father that he threw her over the cliffs and into the sea.

 

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She descended to the depths where fish and sea animals preyed upon her, leaving her in skeletal form.

 

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One day a fisherman was out in his boat. Something tugged on his line. The weight of it made him realize he had caught a “big one!”

 

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But he hadn’t caught a fish. When Skeleton Woman surfaced, with sea urchins in the sockets of her eyes, he coiled at the sight of her.

 

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He thought he had rid himself of her but much to his dismay, she followed him to his home.

 

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Initially, he was repulsed by her, but then he took pity and began to untangle her bones.

 

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Skeleton Woman was frightened that she might be thrown into the sea again; that her bones would plummet to the depths once more. Moved by the fisherman’s kindness, she reached out to him while he slept. A tear had escaped from his eyelid and while he slumbered, she drank from the liquid.

 

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Then she took his heart out of his chest and beat on it like a drum. As she did, she sang out, and cried for flesh and all the things that would make her whole as a woman.

 

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Then she crawled into bed with the man and united with him. The two lived together, fishing the sea, and enjoying each other’s company.

Most young women these days have never heard of Women Who Run With the Wolves, but it is a profound book. Perhaps it’s time to turn yet again to story and myth to better understand ourselves and how we heal.

 

 

Help Me! Go Away!

9 Dec

With the news of my mom’s death, my psyche shattered as if a violent shooter had pointed his assault rifle at my soul and fired endless rounds of ammunition. The psychological and physical carnage was everywhere as I sat on my bed, shaking and sobbing. Then the numbing set in, as I looked at the notes I’d written while talking with the police officer on the phone.

Two friends showed up to be with me. They were the EMTs on the scene, walking me through the basics: phone calls to family, to my work, to the church, and to the morgue. Another friend arrived with a bag of groceries and flowers.

Cindy, who was now married to the man who had once been my mom’s second husband, urged me to stay the night with she and Chuck. I said I would be fine. At three in the morning, I wasn’t fine. I’d been clinging to my cats, Rumi and Hafiz, who loved me as fiercely as children their mother. But even their sweet affectionate hearts couldn’t soothe the pain I felt. I called my friend, Mike, who also urged me to come over, yet somehow I couldn’t get in the car. I had been in a prison of isolation for so long, I didn’t know how to walk into the salvation of someone’s loving arms, platonic or otherwise. I could take a bite of nourishment, but a meal was too much to take in.

In college, my heart and legs had still been willing and open to receive. I jumped into the laps and beds of many who reached out to me, temporarily drinking in what felt like love, but didn’t always stick.

My mother had built a shrine to the institution of love, marriage, and romance. She put flowers, food, and trinkets on this alter, despite that my dad cheated on her very early in their marriage. She had grown up thinking that a knight in shining armor would rescue her from a life of banality in the Midwest. Enter my father, who whisked her away from Wisconsin to California, but instead of sitting pretty as a lawyer’s wife, she was left to fend for herself in the world, and to raise her child alone. This was not how they told her life was supposed to be. Reality ruined her fantasies, yet she clung to the theology in which she’d been indoctrinated: Women were nothing if they were alone. This is what drove her to drink. After my dad left her, she never felt she was enough.

I would be different. I wouldn’t need a man. Hell. I wouldn’t need anyone.

Yet I did need. During her first incarceration, when I was twenty-four, the prison social worker had called me, expressing concern that my mom would attempt suicide upon her release, which was scheduled for two days after Christmas. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, so I went to the movies. I saw the romantic comedy, Sabrina, a remake of an older film. This version starred Harrison Ford as a wealthy playboy. Initially blind to the daughter of his chauffeur, he suddenly sees her in a new light. The daughter, a much younger woman played by Julia Ormond, has blossomed from an Ugly Duckling into a swan that catches the billionaire’s attention. As in most rom-coms, the lovely, humble girl eventually gets her due: a gorgeous, filthy rich man who will cherish, adore, and take care of her for the rest of her life.

That Christmas evening, I went to the family of an ex-boyfriend’s. They were hosting a little dinner party. When George opened the door and hugged me, I remembered the feel of his body pressed against mine. I was a fraction of his height, so in his arms, I felt protected. He was so pretty he didn’t seem real. Curls flopped in his eyes, which were framed by lashes thick and long enough to be a girl’s. Would he be my Harrison Ford, there to save the day?

We’d met in a graduate seminar. I was the pipsqueak undergraduate, who’d been invited to join. That spring quarter played out like a montage from a tender movie. George and I spent time at the beach. We swam, and held hands, and made out, while we talked about our dreams and aspirations. We shared about writing and books and life. He cared about me, and I, about him, but he had a long-term girlfriend who was finishing up at Harvard. When summer came our relationship transitioned to friends.

It wasn’t the first time since our break up that we’d seen each other. There’d been some sort of party, where after a few beers, our clothes came off. I shook away the thought like a pesky mosquito disturbing me. As an orphan, I was grateful for a place to go. If George hadn’t invited me for Christmas, I would have spent the holiday alone. I was aware that I was like a dog that never got enough to eat. I was scrounging for scraps. I staved off starvation, yet never felt satiated.

My eyes followed George all night. I laughed at people’s jokes, smiled, and knew I looked lovely. Yet George had no intention of sleeping with me. I drove home, over the Golden Gate Bridge, wondering what it felt like to be loved. It never dawned on me that his invitation to join his family might have been a higher form of love than sex.

The day after hearing of my mom’s death, there was little time to grieve. After sitting with me while I made cremation arrangements, ordered copies of death certificates, and made an appointment to view my mother’s body, Chuck and Cindy insisted that I stay with them that night. They were not going to let me sleep alone. When I protested that I wanted to be with the cats, they pressed me to engage my neighbor, who always happily fed my cats for me. I reluctantly packed an overnight bag.

The night before I’d cried so hard I was developing a stye on the lid of eye. Exhausted, I found myself dozing off despite my jumbled mind. In the soft, plush guest bed at Chuck and Cindy’s, I found some temporary peace. Around 4:00 a.m., my eyes opened. I’m not certain if I cried myself awake, or if in the first thirty seconds of consciousness, I remembered that my mom was dead and suddenly started wailing.

She was found dead on the street, in front of the stores, from an acute overdose of amitriptyline.

I had killed my mother. I let my mother die on the streets alone. I was a horrible, horrible person. I had killed my mother.

Loving arms suddenly engulfed me. My cries had awakened Cindy who had crawled in bed with me. Folding me into the spoon position, she stroked my hair while I sobbed for the mother who had not been able to soothe me in this way.

Selfish Bitch of a Daughter

5 Dec

When my mom was released from prison after that particular incarceration, she asked me to pick her up from the bus station. She needed her purse, money, her driver’s license, and to be driven to a hotel because she no longer had her apartment or many of her belongings. She was going to have to start all over from scratch. Getting a job with a felony was a mountain to scale but at least this time, they hadn’t revoked her license. My mom was no more a criminal than Bambi. Instead she suffered from alcohol dependence and had gotten behind the wheel while intoxicated. She had served prison sentences a number of times for this offense yet had never been court ordered for rehab. If she had had more money and a better attorney, she might have escaped her jailbird fate.

Her car had been parked near my house so I could keep an eye on it. The first thing she wanted to do was get her hair colored because apparently, it looked terrible. Grey roots were showing.

I couldn’t do it. When I thought about picking her up from the downtown Greyhound bus station, making small chitchat after she’d been gone from me for a year, fear hit me like a tsunami. I was a terrible daughter. I was letting her down. I was abandoning my mother, but if I went, I was going to abandon myself. I wouldn’t have a self anymore.

My friend, Lori volunteered to meet my mom at the station. She would give my mother her belongings. Lori also cut me a check for $200.00. “I know money is tight right now, but you need extra therapy support. Take it. It’s my pleasure.”

By not meeting her at the bus and offering her any support, was I leaving her an orphan, lost and alone in the world? Would blood be on my hands? The first time my mom was released from prison, she’d jumped from her apartment balcony, puncturing a lung and breaking a few ribs. I was a selfish bitch of a daughter.

Somehow my mom figured it out. She established herself in an apartment and found a job as a home health aid. She picked up the pieces of her shattered life and put them together again. I owed it to her to see her. That was all she wanted: to see me, her daughter. Thanksgiving was only a few weeks away. I knew that too was on her agenda. What were we going to do for the holiday? I hated the fucking holidays!

I was in the middle of moving apartments, I’d just started a new job, and my father had died only a year prior. I was a selfish bitch of a daughter, but my sanity was as fragile as my mother’s.

I decided that we should meet at Whole Foods and eat at their take out bar. It was quick, it was simple, and I felt safe amongst their gourmet cheese and flower displays. It was civilized and serene. We’d be spared the ordeal of cooking and awkward silences while waiting for a meal in a restaurant.

I stood outside the familiar building and saw her little White Hyundai pull into the parking lot. Because it was almost Thanksgiving, and Whole Foods catered, huge storehouses occupied space in the parking lot. It was difficult to find a spot. My mom had to circle a bit.

Whatever I feared would happen, didn’t. On the contrary, my heart opened when she got out of the car. This was my mother, the woman who had taken me to Girl Scouts and to Halloween carnivals. She was the woman who I had matching mother/daughter outfits with. Oh, how I loved my pink, green, and white plaid bell bottoms with the matching pink top. I’d beg her to wear hers so we’d be identical.

As she came forward to hug me, she kissed the air instead of my cheek. Whenever I hugged her, her body would collapse in and away from me. Direct, bear hug contact made her uncomfortable, no matter who was hugging her. With authority, I led us to the hot bar area of the store and gave her an overview of our selections. She picked out roast beef and macaroni and cheese. As a habit, my mom barely ate. She consisted on diet-coke and vodka, but when she occasionally would have a meal, she was still a meat and potatoes girl from Wisconsin. She didn’t like fruits, whole grains, or vegetables. She maintained a stellar figure for years, until starving herself finally messed up her natural metabolism. She affectionately called me, “Little Piggy,” which infuriated me. I was far from “piggy.” I was actually quite slender, but she didn’t understand where the food I ate went. I would lecture her that dieting was the worst thing one could do for one’s health and figure.

She insisted on paying for our food. I knew money was tight for her, but it would have insulted her if I had made the gesture.

It wasn’t awful. She asked me about my new job and how I liked it. I asked her about her new apartment. Even though I was working as a psychotherapist in a program that supported ex-felons in a their re-entry into society, I couldn’t ask my own mom about her experiences in jail. We both had an unspoken rule that it was off limits for discussion. Despite it all, I was proud of her. She had more spunk and strength than I’d given her credit for. Time in a state prison would have destroyed me; shattered my soul.

Every holiday season, when I see those storehouses, or generators, or whatever that thing is that takes up a number of spaces in the Whole Foods parking lot, I think of that encounter with my mother.

Incarceration is like a death in the family. The person leaves and then suddenly resurrects upon release. I went through this process with my mother five times, until she actually died for real.

Can You Say No To Good?

19 Nov

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When I was a little girl, I was so into sweets, I’d climb to the upper kitchen cabinets where my mom kept the sugar bowl hidden and help myself to “spoonfuls of sugar.” I suppose all kids like candy. I was no exception. What was exceptional was that no one monitored my sugar intake. My mom gave me a Twinkie or Ding Dong for breakfast, and my dad was known to have put Coca-Cola in my baby bottle. It’s a wonder I’m not obese and that I still have teeth.

What’s ironic is that as an adult, I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I like a little dark chocolate, and I enjoy pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving time, but when it comes to dessert, I can take it or leave it. It doesn’t interest me all that much. People think I’m practicing uber discipline, or that I’m trying to watch my weight. The fact of the matter is, I od’d on sugar and junk food when I was young and can’t do it anymore. I actually get sick from too much sugar.

It’s hard to say no to good things. When I was a kid, I wanted all that candy.

Where I struggle as an adult is turning down offers and opportunities that I see as wonderful. Given my druthers, I’d say, “Yes!” to every neat thing that came my way in the form of work, social engagements, and creativity. I don’t have a hard time saying, “No,” to things that I know are problematic. Yet when it comes to things that would be good for myself and others, it’s very hard to say, “No.” It feels counter-intuitive, and I second guess myself all the time.

That said, too much candy can make one sick. And too much of anything, becomes too much. As an adult, I look out on the smorgasbord of life, and realize I can’t have it all, all at the same time. I have to pace myself, and I have to finish what’s on my plate before I go back for seconds.

Too Busy To Be Grateful?

18 Nov

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The other day my friend/neighbor texted me, asking if I wanted to go for a walk when she got home from work. I was delighted to realize that yes, I could go for a walk. I didn’t have a commitment at the hour she suggested, nor did I have pressing work that needed to be finished.

Years ago, when my friend’s dog was alive, we used to walk at least a few times a week. Deb would call (texting hadn’t been invented yet) to tell me that she was leaving her house and that she’d meet me at mine. This routine kept us up on the details of each other’s lives. We knew all the strange cacti of the neighborhood, as well as all of the dogs and cats. It was a way to reflect on the beginning or the ending of the day.

Those walks set a precedent of neighborly connection not thought of as the norm in Southern California. Yet despite our nice friendship, weeks and even months can go by without Deb and I walking or even talking! The demands of work and personal lives interfere with spontaneity, spaciousness, and leisure.

I have been too busy. And when I’m too busy, gratitude is the first thing that goes out the window for me. I don’t notice the canyons, or the flowers, and I don’t hear the birds. Instead, I experience a chorus of worry and resentment unheard of in a third world country. Many people would be grateful for my life, as well as my problems. I have my health, food in my belly, and a roof over my head. I have meaningful work and people that love me. What’s not to be thankful for?

As we enter the pre-Thanksgiving period and start to reflect on all we have to be grateful for, I am reminded again and again how my sense of appreciation somehow rises exponentially when I have a little inner spaciousness. For me, if I’m too busy, I forget to be grateful. Instead, I’m exhausted and cranky like a child in need of a nap. Slowing down increases my awareness and causes me to give thanks. Time is a precious commodity and one of the things for which I’m grateful this season.

On Sabbatical

11 Nov

After 365 days of sunshine, it is finally cloudy today in Southern California, giving us a feeling of faux winter. Okay, I’m exaggerating that we’ve had 365 days of sunshine, but I’m not that far off base. Last winter, we were drenched in perpetual Santa Ana conditions, and by May, we experienced scorching hot temperatures and raging wild fires all over the city. With only a few scattered showers here and there, we found ourselves in a drought and endured habitual heat waves. Not only that, we didn’t have our usual May Gray or June Gloom, which would have at least cloaked the town in a marine layer each morning. Instead, by 6:00 a.m., the sun would taunt us to get outside and do something!

Today, I have stayed inside for a bulk of the day. I am on sabbatical – or at least what I am calling my sabbatical. I am not a professor, so I am not using the word in its true context. However, I am off for a considerable amount of time so that I can write and have a respite from nonstop travel teaching.

As I’ve puttered about the house, I keep thinking that every time I sit in my living room chair, Hafiz will jump into my lap. I imagine that when I pull turkey meat off the bone to put into my pot of soup, Rumi will turn the corner, look up at me, and meow. Where are they? Where did they go? How is possible that they are gone?

I remember the first night I had my two cats. The sound of their feet on my hard wood floor made my eyes pop open in fierce alarm. How in the world would I be able to sleep? When I told someone this story, he responded, “And then the sound became comforting.” He was right, but I wondered, “When and how did that happen?”

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Yes, it’s cliche to say, “For everything there is a season…” You know the words. What you might not realize is that the writer of that text was pretty down on life. It’s not a very upbeat read.

How do we stay afloat? How do we move from one season to the next, with or without those we love? How do we bear change, be it a drought in California, or a Polar Vortex just about everywhere else? And how do metabolize all the violence and injustice in the world that we see splayed out before us each day on the television and vis-a-vis the Internet, or the pain in our personal lives?

Last holiday season, to counter the loss of Rumi and Hafiz, I made certain I had a magnificent, live Christmas tree. Each night I fell asleep with it in the backdrop of my sensory awareness, and each morning, I awoke to its presence in my living room. I loved that tree. I dreaded taking it to the recycling lot on January 2nd. After taking it to the tree cemetery, I burst into tears when I returned to my empty house.

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For everything there is a season, and a first. I remember the first Christmas without parent figures, and the first Christmas without my mom. My grandmother is 95, so I know that in a few years, there will be a first Christmas without her as well. Yet not all firsts entail losses. Some firsts entail gains.

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For everything there is a season. To help us make sense of it all, it’s wonderful when we can get a sabbatical.

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Is Technology Killing You?

31 Oct

There are days when if one more thing beeps at me, indicating that I have a text, email, or phone call, I want to pick up the phone and throw it against the wall. There are times when I want to smash the thing into a million pieces and scream, “Leave me the f— alone!” Can I get a witness, or am I the only person on the planet that feels this way?

Don’t get me wrong. My smart phone is a device of incredible convenience, and at times, pleasure. It allows me to work for myself, to stay connected to family and friends, and to be in a long distance relationship despite miles of geographical separation. But I think technology is slowly killing us.

The new normal is to be constantly beeped at like we’re Pavlov’s dog subjected to classical conditioning.

We are not entirely powerless here. We can have periods where we turn off the notifications and/or the phone. We can also elect to not have a phone, although in today’s business world, that isn’t really an option.

For someone who has had to work years on ironing out co-dependent behaviors, the phone presents a challenge. When it beeps at me I feel like it’s a person who IMMEDIATELY wants something from me. I have to pause and say to myself, “Your emergency is not my emergency,” or, “I’m in the middle of something. I can’t get to you right now. Whatever it is can wait.” If I’m driving in the middle of heinous traffic conditions, it’s best I focus on the road and tell the phone, “Go away! Later!” Or, if I’m in a deep intimate conversation with someone and the phone beeps or rings or vibrates or buzzes, I can pause and say, “Let me turn this thing off.”

The other day I took my car in for an oil change. My mechanic’s shop was a buzz with activity. Cars and people were lined up for his attention, the phone was ringing, and the office attendant had temporarily stepped out. Yet he didn’t seem harried or flustered. He just calmly did what he needed to do, one thing at a time. Not only that, he did it all with a smile, despite having thrown his back out. “What is his secret?” I thought. “What keeps him grounded and in the moment? Was it because there was no smart phone around?” I doubt he had one. However, I suspected his demeanor had more to do with something internal that allowed him to triage nonsense and to know the limits of what could and couldn’t be accomplished in one day.

After working at a cafe for an hour, I returned to pick up my car. It wasn’t quite ready, so I sat down on a bench to wait. Immediately, I pulled out my phone. Then I stopped myself. What the heck needed checking? I’d just caught up on all my email. At that moment, I felt a ray of warmth grace my cheek as the sun appeared from behind a cloud. I stopped. Could I just sit here for ten or fifteen minutes and do nothing? Could I just close my eyes and breathe?

I hate beeps and loud noises blasting from televisions, radios, and leaf blowers. I always have, even as a little girl. Instead, I love the sound of silence.

At the core, I gravitate to the most basic things in life: a flower; a bird; someone’s smile; a good book. As I sat there, I thought, “This is MY life. It’s up to me what I do with it.” I can make a choice. Technology can run me, or I can run technology.

At certain points in the day or night, I press the “off” button. Then I work on recharging my body, mind, and spirit. Otherwise, this device is going to crash.

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