Relentless Files — Week 19
*An essay every Friday in 2016*
(forgive the lateness but Mother’s Day…)
Last year when I posted my essay, Unmothered on Mother’s Day, one reader, a stranger, had a particularly visceral reaction to it. She said I was disrespecting mothers by posting it when I did. She said she didn’t want it on her timeline. She ranted and raved, and I was so triggered, I argued back. In the end, she said, “Well, I have a great relationship with my mom, so…” That shit stung. I blocked her from my author page.
When I reposted the essay this week, an older woman saw it on an FB page and told me that what I’m saying wasn’t true, that my mother loved me, “it’s just that she wasn’t affection like me”, but that no matter, her daughters went to college and ended up well. I was shocked that she would dare to tell me what my experience was and told her as much.
This week, another woman, who is (or was) a regular follower of my blog (whom I’ve never met personally), got upset because I didn’t cater to her needs like she wanted me to. I lost my patience with her after trying to be kind and generous and told her to stop her shit already. She told me I was full of shit. That I wasn’t generous. That my biggest fear was that I wasn’t generous. That I couldn’t be because my mother never taught me how. That shit stung. I peaced out on her. What I wanted to do was very different but I didn’t go there.
I am many things. I can be fierce. When you piss me off, watch out. But one thing I’m not is malicious. I don’t set out to hurt people. That last woman, I’ll call her T, was trying to hurt me. I get that it really wasn’t about me. I get that hurt people, hurt people, but shit, it takes a special kind of heinous to use what you’ve read of someone’s story to hurt them.
We look down on anger. Shun it. Criticize people who show anger.
My mother has a habit of making everything into anger. When she can’t deal with emotions, she becomes angry. Anger she can deal with. Hurt she can’t. Rejection, no. Anger she gets. Anger she can use to direct attention away from herself, her own pain, what she’s not dealing with. I was so often the target of my mother’s anger.
I know anger well. It was so often directed at me, I took it on as a friend. A sister. I learned to use my anger to my benefit. I took it out on the girls at school, those who bullied me and those who didn’t. I became bully and bullied.
To this day, I struggle with anger. I feel it rise in my chest. It’s white and hot and makes me clench my teeth and fist my hands. I feel it right now as I describe it. This rage that stirs in me, that I struggle with daily.
Mothers aren’t supposed to be angry. Women aren’t supposed to be angry. We’re supposed to be gentle and fragile, we’re supposed to take care.
A few years ago I started boxing. To get in shape, yes. But also because I got a rush from pounding on the bag. From giving it straight rights and upper cuts and jabs. From sweating and panting while I punched and punched and punched. I never sparred. I never wanted to. It wasn’t about boxing with someone. It was just me and the bag. I could give that bag all my pain, all my rage, all my disappointment and resentment and fuck-why-is-this-life-so-hard, and that bag would take it and not judge me or ask me why I was so mad. The bag wouldn’t tell me that I needed to get over it and move on. The bag wouldn’t tell me that I couldn’t be generous because my mother never taught me how.
I knew this week would trigger me. I was surprised last week when I didn’t feel anything when my therapist asked me how I felt about Mother’s Day. I shrugged. I told him I was practicing self-care that day. I was isolating myself. I wasn’t going to go out to stare at the balloons and the wide smiles, people hugging their mothers. I planned on taking a hiatus from FB for the day so I wouldn’t have to stare at the posts. I was going to sit with myself and watch movies and numb. That was the plan (and I kept to it). I was okay this week. Then that chick T said that shit (which I know not to be true but still) and on Thursday I walked into a store and Mother’s Day signs were everywhere, and my student asked me, “Ms, what you doing for Mother’s Day?” I am fuckin triggered.
“Her absence became her presence.” When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
I gasped when I read that line. It’s so simple and yet so perfect. For the past 27 years of my life, my mother’s absence has been her presence.
This week I read a bunch of essays about being unmothered.
“The power of motherhood is mystical in its ability to create and destroy. “Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies,” Adrienne Rich writes in her book about motherhood, “one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.” The failed mom’s power is no less indelible than a good mom’s power.” A Toast to All the Brave Kids Who Broke Up with their Toxic Moms
She called me the other day. My mother. I didn’t answer because I wasn’t in the space to talk to her. The next day, after a good work out, I called her back. She asked me why I hadn’t called or responded to her texts. I confessed, “You canceled on me the other day when I was supposed to go see you. That hurt my feelings.” “That doesn’t matter,” she said. “Yes, it does matter.” I said, calmly. No resentment or anger in my voice. “My feelings matter, ma.” She was quiet for a second. I imagined her mouth wide open with surprise.
To be clear, I don’t think my mother doesn’t love me. I think she doesn’t know how to love me. Neither one of us knows how to have a relationship with each other. We’re such different people and also the same in so many ways, it scares me. Both short tempered and quick to tell you about yourself, with a deep capacity for compassion and generosity, if not with each other.
Last week my therapist talked about how an abusive or absent mother affects the way a child sees herself. It’s easier for a child to think there’s something wrong with her than with her mother because if something is wrong with mom, who is the world to a child, what does that say about the world? It’s such a simple statement but so profound.
I look at the ways I coped with my mother’s abuse. How violent I became. The rage that gathered in my chest and still sits there, like a beast waiting for its prey. I’m learning to look at that darkness. To make friends with it. I put out a bowl for it to feast on. I pet it. I talk to it. I get to know it. It’s a part of me. It walks with me. It ain’t going anywhere. It’s time I get to know it and how it works. What makes it tick.
I can’t remember reading anything about antagonistic mother-daughter relationships before I started this healing quest. Before I faced it and named it and decided to confront it. This wound I carry because of my biological mother’s inability to mother me. Then I started seeking them out—essays and books and sociological and psychological studies. They started coming to me when I wasn’t searching, like just now as I was reading the May issue of The Sun and came upon S.J. Miller’s “A Merry Little Christmas”
Then I started meeting women like me. They told me they read my work, that I gave them words for how they feel, that I’ve helped them cope and confront, that they feel less alone as a result. “I thought I was the only one…” Their voices trail off and I imagine they are back there, when they were helpless little girls, cringing in a corner, mother hovering over, screaming. Crushing. I too remember. There are so many of us out there who do.
I’m moving into a place where I understand and can accept that I wouldn’t be the woman I am had I not had to mother myself and save my own life. I am this woman who protects herself and those she loves fiercely because of the cruelty I’ve seen in this world. The cruelty that’s been inflicted on me. I am generous and kind and take no shit because I know what it’s like to deal with shit and be deprived and left wanting.
I am this mother who holds and coddles and also lets my girl express herself and grow and venture and take risks, knowing she will come to mama if and when she needs because I have created this relationship with her where she knows I am her rock and will continue to be that until it’s time for me to leave this earth.
I can be this sister friend who holds space and is loving and reliable and honest.
I am this teacher who will show you the mirror and hold you while you stare.
I am this woman who is growing into herself and letting myself feel and I am honoring that, myself, with love, because not many can live what I have and not be irrevocably hardened. As fellow writer Peggy Robles says, “Magic making isn’t for pendejas.” Word.
It’s interesting how the universe will make you revisit lessons periodically to make sure that you’ve actually ingested them. During therapy on Friday I had an epiphany about T, that woman who follows my work and insisted on telling me about myself. First about one of my Relentless Files essays which she insisted was subpar, said I was still trying to convince people that I am a real writer. She said I needed to get to the story and stop trying to prove myself. Then she had an issue with another essay that I wrote after Prince died, about how Prince gave my brother and so many the permission to embrace their misfit selves. She insists Prince was a predator and user of women, which even if that’s true, this too is true—Prince had an enormous influence on the misfits of the world. Then she took issue with my love for boxing. She reminds me of my mother, and no, that’s not a compliment. No matter what I do or have done, how much I’ve shared of myself, how I’ve responded and heard her out, nothing is enough. She demanded more and when I wouldn’t give it to her, I was “full of shit” and “jealous” and “not generous at all.”
There are these people who will demand more, who will insist that no matter how much you give them, in your stories and communications or otherwise, they will insist on more and not respect boundaries. I’ve relearned that lesson this week and I say this: Fuck that, no. It is not my job to take on someone’s shit, their pain, their trauma, their rage. I have my own shit to handle. My last name may be martyr but I’m not trying to be one. Martyrs die young. Martyrs are self-sacrificial. I’m not trying to be that.
The other night, I went and did stairs to release the anxiety of the week. I did two sets of 110 steps by one and two sets taking them by two, all sets done at top speed. I jammed to music and pumped my heart rate, and with each step, I released myself of that shit and those people. I let myself feel the grief of Mother’s Day and the sting of the mother wound. I released any guilty I felt for standing up for myself and saying, “No.” I released myself of people’s expectations of me and how they think I should exist in the world. I opened myself up to myself, my needs and wants and hopes. And I decided to go back to boxing because I miss the bag and I don’t give a fuck who has a problem with that.
Last night, after a magical day of spiritual work, I opened Ross Gay’s “catalog of unabashed gratitude” and came upon the poem “feet.” I was struck by its ending.
I am trying, I think, to forgive myself
for something I don’t know what.
But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet says
I am trying to do this
or I am trying to do that.
Sometimes it’s a horseshit trick. But sometimes
it’s a way by which the poet says
I wish I could tell you,
truly, of the little factory
in my head: the smokestacks
chuffing, the dandelions
and purslane and willows of sweet clover
prying through the blacktop.
I wish I could tell you
how inside is the steady mumble and clank of machines.
But mostly I wish I could tell you of the footsteps I hear,
more than I can ever count,
all of whose gaits I can discern by listening, closely.
Which promptly disappear
after being lodged again,
here, where we started, in the factory
where loss makes all things
When I write, I’m trying to show you the machine that is my heart and what haunts it. I’m trying to make beauty of those ghosts, the angst of them. I’m trying to show how it is this human, this woman, navigates this life. I feel it is my duty to share it.
Earlier this week, I was frustrated with it…these words. Sometimes you want, expect, demand that the writing heal you, do all the work, answer all the questions, be everything. You shake your fist at it when it doesn’t. When it won’t, can’t. “Why must you be so insolent,” you yell. The page stares your craziness right back at you. This week was about staring at that craziness and being okay with it…