toxicity, part III: legacy

my sister’s lake

You know how when someone pisses you off, like really bad, and suddenly, everyone else around you appears that much sweeter… and you find yourself immersed in a new found appreciation for the people you took for granted…

That’s where our family was a week ago after an unexpected, but predictable, and yet no less painful, drama, enacted by an extended family member with our oldest son.

In the brunt of this storm, we held on tightly to each other, and buoyed ourselves with compassion and connection and alliance.

Later that evening, my youngest came into my office, and draped himself over my shoulders. “Thank you,” he said.

“For what?” I asked, as I wrapped my arms around his.

“For you and dad,” he said.  “For not bringing the pain of your childhoods into our family.”

I sighed, and suggested that he might feel differently by the time he’s an adult, and then I stood up to meet him in a full embrace.

Hours later, when his older brother came to my bedside and kissed my forehead goodnight, he echoed the same appreciation.

“Well done.” he said.

I looked up quizzically.

“You raised me without all that crap.”

Wait until you’re thirty and in therapy, I almost said, but then I paused, and took in his recognition, and said, Thank you, and then announced, as much to myself:  “It was hard work!”

I went on to catalogue all the ways in which I’d cultivated consciousness from the time I was his age… Al-Anon, therapy, reading, writing, yoga, meditation. “It never ends,” I said. “Pass it on.”

He smiled and nodded, familiar with my expectations on this account.

As a family we hadn’t made it through this night alone. At the height of the pain at our kitchen table, I hit the pause button. I asked, “Can I call for a lifeline?” My son reluctantly agreed.

A half-hour later, he hung up the phone, at ease. He didn’t send that second email. We all breathed a sigh of relief. (I sent my sister a quick thank you.)

Robin lives on a private lake. It’s become a family refuge over the years. A place for gatherings and heart to hearts and silent communes with nature, and the occasional family meltdown at a holiday or reunion.

Before she bought the property, however, it had been an abandoned and young people gathered there to party. (Even some of our friends back in the day.) Robin still lets the fishermen come, but she’s long since turned away the four-wheelers and the campfires and the broken beer bottles. Even so, the lake and the beaches and the woods continued to unearth old pieces of trash or broken glass despite the seasons attending to what was left behind.

Which brings me to our parents.
And their legacy.

It was my father’s admonition that I choose a career based on the best contribution I could make–which led me to the pursuit of consciousness above all else.

And it was my mother’s devotion to consciousness–in daily practice–alongside her sobriety–which showed me how.

And it was their combined unconsciousness, and that of their parents before them, that taught me the consequence of forgoing it.

What I now find so absolutely amazing–beyond how the patterns of toxicity and pain perpetuate themselves into the next generation–is choice.

My sister might have decided against building beside that neglected lake. Instead she took trash bags on her walks, and we’ve reaped the benefit of her attention and perseverance.

On the morning after our family realized just how much we appreciated who we were together (and who were weren’t), I remember feeling stunned that I felt so crappy.

“What happened to all the love and clarity,” I moaned, as I dragged myself through the day–agitated with residue.

The answer came in the recollection of a title from a favorite read a few years back:

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

So I grabbed a bag, and got started.
86b272bc_original

(See posts I & II: Loved Ones: a meditation on toxicity;
and A meditation on toxicity, Part II.)

An advance resource for toxicity:
This came in my inbox just as I hit save on this post!
How to clear your sinuses and your emotional baggage.

a meditation on toxicity, part II

lion-face
Embroidery and graphite on fabric by Ana Teresa Barboza

Over the weekend, I wrote–Loved Ones: a meditation on toxicity–and was surprised to see so many readers drawn in, particularly on a Saturday night.

I wrote about the sluggishness that came in the aftermath of my son’s initiation… into the family… tragedy. But I didn’t explain that I was equally weighed down by the residue of a respiratory infection. Loitering congestion. In my ears and throat and lymph nodes.

I realize now that this led me to the provocative image that I chose for the piece–or that chose me. After the piece was published, the image continued to play with my consciousness as I found myself responding to a request on Facebook:

Ok, Saturday-night-stay-in’s – if you post a picture i will write a poem about it. Just say, “Hi dug- pic poem, please.”

Kelly Salasin’s Kill Strategy
a pic poem by dug Nap
(For Kelly)

Anytime she’s
not so sure
kelly always goes
for the jugular

I was stunned by the violence of this tiny piece. Had the artist read my article? Was he judging me? Why hadn’t he taken a scientific angle on this anatomic study–which could have been on the kitchen table, on any given morning, of my childhood, before my father left for the operating room.

When I went in to see the doctor last week, she put me on the table, and massaged down my throat, coaxing toxins from my lymph nodes.

I hadn’t realized that I was so filled.
With rage.
Until my son read a single line from the email he received.
(He refused to let me here more.)

I grabbed his laptop. I pleaded:

“Please don’t respond again. She’ll only be more venomous. She can’t handle boundaries.”

My son was amused by my passion. He insisted that I didn’t need to worry.

I shared the spontaneous visions that were occurring in my mind’s eye on his behalf:

Tearing flesh with fanged teeth.

Ripping jugular veins as a three-headed beast.

Becoming a thousand insects, devouring her brain.

Faced with the mythical proportions of his mother’s protective instinct, he turned toward his father:

“Where are your feelings,” he demanded.

“I am so used to this,” my husband explained.

“But she cc-ed you on the Goddamn email,” he said. “She fucking invited you to watch as she kicked your son in the face.”

My husband remained silent.

I was quieted by my inability to help.

We went to bed numb.

As I settled under the covers, it occurred to me that my vision could potentially injure the Other, so I mustered metta to send to the One who had attacked my child.

A week has past, but the meditation on toxicity continues to force itself into another day. This morning, a Mary Oliver line comes to mind:

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

My gift is knowing that a boundary was crossed. Long ago. In my own family of origin. And I failed to defend it.

benzank-400x391My husband’s gift is the understanding that he never learned that boundaries were possible–among loved ones–from whom he must claim where he begins… and they end.

Our son wasn’t angry with either of us.
He was simply sad.
He wanted to understand:

How had we lived our entire lives without ever saying:

No.

~

(The previous post: Loved Ones: a meditation on toxicity.
(The post after this one: toxicity, part III: legacy.)

when the end is near…

There was the afternoon
when i slid down the wall
in the hallway
in front of the bookshelf
and dozed there
with a lap full of journals;
until voices lifted my gaze
out the window
toward the hill,
where Aidan,
tall and lanky,
like a teenager,
used a plastic bat
to hit snowballs to his friend.

Unlike his older brother,
Aidan has lulled me,
with his child-like ways,
into the fantasy
that “we”
will always
be.

(Emily was right…
How softly summer shuts, without the creaking of a door.)

Money Troubles

klimt-mother-and-childI’m having money trouble. On the inside.

I thought the pain in my stomach tracked back to summer’s surrender to fall (when my mid-life chocolate consumption spiked from a bar a month to a desperate nibble every shrinking hour of the day); but after some in-depth chakra exploration this afternoon, I realize that the pain came on last spring–as my self-employment income plummeted.

I’ve since restructured the budget, and found a greater place of ease; but my stomach is still talking.

I listen in more closely.

It flashes back… to a young mother, sitting at the top of the stairs, after a long day home alone, with an infant.

I’m weeping.
Or I want to weep.

“I don’t remember my last paycheck,” I say.

Twenty years later this seems a silly thing.
And a curious one.

It’s hard to remember a time when I was defined by a paycheck. I’ve spent so many years now prioritizing home and family that income has grown comfortable in the back seat.

In fact, when I sit down to shape my goals for 2016, I find that my visions flow easily, until I get to the category entitled: finances.

I try, but I can’t even begin to wish for more. I don’t know how. I feel wrong.

Apparently I’ve exchanged fear of not having enough to fear of having too much.

This is further complicated by my long established role in the home. Instead of bread winner, I’ve been budget maker, deal finder, abundance-shaper.

I keep thinking there will come a time when my role is no longer necessary, but as the kids come of age, it seems just as relevant, in new and different ways.

Over the years as a parent, I’ve chosen to have less, so that we can have more.

Can I have both?
More income and more…
What is the other more?

More me. More family. More connection. More values. More alignment. More passion. More contribution.

With this insight, comes release.
A big exhale.
A softening of the belly.

home again, gone again

photo: Julie Fender-Zobel

the food lasts longer.
so does the cleaning.
routines are simpler.
decisions too.
but less than 48 hours later,
our hearts ache in his absence.
so we tell them:
don’t be silly,
he’ll be back soon.
but hearts are funny that way.
families too.

Mommy Graduation

DSCN3500
Mommies graduate too!

Earlier this month I experienced mounting anxiety as my youngest approached graduation; but not because he wasn’t ready.

It was me.

flat,1000x1000,075,fI’ve devoted a lifetime to children, and not just the past 21 years to my boys and their school; but the decade before that to the children in my classroom, and even the decades before that, to my seven younger siblings.

Underneath the separation anxiety is
GRIEF,
and underneath that,
a deeper truth:

I AM READY!

I’ve been ready.

But the readiness doesn’t diminish the loss.
The vacuum.
Where there once was Everything.

hot-airLast night, he graduated.
I graduated.
(From the last of them.)

My baby will leave the hill that shaped our lives together,
and head to town,
to the high school,
where his father teaches.

And me?
How do I feel?
That’s what people ask, expecting
sorrow.

I barely slept.
I tossed and turned and fretted.

It may have been the champagne,
but I kept thinking of bubbles
and all things
that float…
up.

Finally, my mind settled in on
balloons,
and then to a single
hot
air
balloon,

and the way,

SHE RISES,

as she lightens

the
load.

the fading of the kindergarten wall

DSCN2882
Aidan at the bus stop, with his luggage.

3:36 pm. The school bus stops at our driveway, across from the pond, but no one gets off.

Our youngest, 14, has just, this very moment, touched down in Liberia, Costa Rica with his Junior High classmates.

When his older brother made the same trip a handful of years ago, I was a wreck; but he was only 12.

Still, I’ve splintered this entire day checking the status updates of Jet Blue and the posts in our parent Facebook group.

We brought our kids to school last night at 2:30 in the morning, and gathered in the parking lot in front of the bus until everyone arrived. We chatted like it was normal to be there, in the dark, in the middle of the night, hanging out. Someone joked about getting breakfast, and we all felt the pull of longing after a long winter that has protracted itself into spring.

3:00 am
3:00 am

The yellow school bus heading to JFK, manned by their classroom teacher, pulled out, on time, at 3:00 am, and two sets of parents cheered. Not for the kids. But for us. We were heading home childless. For 9 days!

By the time I got in the car though, the emptiness overtook me, and when I crawled back into bed, my mind skipped from thought to thought and wouldn’t let me rest.

Aidan graduates this June. People dismiss elementary school graduations as excessive and unnecessary, but they are truly poignant in our community. This particular rite of passage comes after 12+ years with the same peers before splintering off to a number of different public and private schools in the area. (Our town doesn’t have a high school so the tax dollars are applied to a school of choice.)

The graduation is also distinguished by the school itself. Completing your tenure at Marlboro Elementary is a one of a kind experience–steeped in ritual, initiation, rigor and love.

At the graduation ceremony itself, the students proceed through a canopy of teachers and staff joining hands above them; and then the students take the podium to host the ceremony themselves, even secretly choosing the guest speaker in the months before hand.

Theirs is a combined class of 7th and 8th graders, so it’s the families of the youngers who host the reception afterward; and the next day, these 7th graders return to their classroom, on their own, to greet the upcoming sixth graders.

Prior to the graduation ceremony, other rituals take place:

  • the reading of poetry from their own kindergarten days in the company of the current kindergarten class;
  • the weekly literature tea followed by an annual game of croquet–with students dressed in their finest hats and light colored clothing (a sight rarely seen in these parts);
  • a hands-on tie-tying examination which is a longtime rite of passage at Marlboro Elementary;
  • a private Consortium for graduates and their families where 8th graders step up to the podium in the Town Hall, built in 1822, to share an exemplary personal essay;
  • a portfolio presentation where an individual graduate (assisted by a 7th grade classmate) presents his best work from each of her years at the school to his parents and select teaching staff;
  • a Cabaret, put on by the Junior High, and held in the evening, in the theater at Marlboro College;
  • and my favorite–the last All School Sing–highlighting the favorite songs of the graduates at the final all school gathering.
sadly, the only photo I can find of Aidan and me at All School Sing
sadly, the only photo I can find of Aidan and me at All School Sing–a dancing day

This past Monday, feeling the departure of my son on the horizon, I attended the weekly All School Sing, and sat across the room from the boy who once insisted on sitting on my lap, and then at my feet, and then just a few bodies away.

Now he has his own chair in the outer circle with the adults while his younger peers take a spot inside the circle on the floor.

I look over at my son from time to time to see if he sees me, but his focus is on his peers until one of our favorite songs is sung: Kindergarten Wall.

I imagine that I began punctuating the lines, “CLEAN UP YOUR MESS,” to his older brother long before I began turning toward Aidan with them; and it’s become a family joke; a duel of sorts; particularly as Aidan turns the song back in my direction with his own emphasis of a handful of lines, punctuating the “grownups”:

But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget…

I am relieved to see that at 14, Aidan still plays along, even from across the room; although now he does so with his eyes more than his voice. After school, he reminds me that the part directed to adults is a whole section long; and I smile, happy for the connection, with a tinge of loss, knowing that  has already left the messy stage of childhood and had has headed into the foolishness of aging.

The last song sung was another family favorite, one which is always shared at the Sing before the Junior High takes their bi-annual trip abroad:

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Long mistaken as Peter, Paul & Mary’s, my boys and I know to whom this song belongs.

Their sixth grade teacher, a jazz lover, detests John Denver’s crooning, so we make a point to emphasize that this is his song; and David makes a point to leave the room.

Last year, Aidan argued at great lengths with his music teacher about it. She finally conceded in a phone message to our house that evening: “Aidan was right; but Peter, Paul and Mary were the ones to make it famous.”

a classroom, transformed
a classroom, transformed

As we sing, “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go…” a lump forms in my throat, just as Aidan motions for me to turn toward the back of the room where David is departing.

I smile and simultaneously realize that Aidan and I have sung in this room together since he was a babe in arms. We sang Leaving on Jet Plane to every class since then.

But when that school bus pulls back into the parking lot next week after midnight, there will only be a few All School Sings left between us.

Kindergarten Wall

When I was a little kid not so long ago
I had to learn a lot of stuff I didn’t even know
How to dress myself, tie my shoes, how to jump a rope
How to smile for a picture without looking like a dope
But of all the things I learned my favorite of them all
Was a little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall

CHORUS:

Of all you learn here remember this the best:
Don’t hurt each other and clean up your mess
Take a nap everyday, wash before you eat
Hold hands, stick together, look before you cross the street
And remember the seed in the little paper cup:
First the root goes down and then the plant grows up!

Well, it was first, second, third grade, fourth grade, too
Where I had to learn the big things the big kids do
To add, subtract, and multiply, read and write and play
How to sit in a little uncomfortable desk for nearly half a day
But of all they taught me my favorite of them all
Was the little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall

Chorus

But lately I’ve been worried as I look around and see
An awful lot of grown-ups acting foolish as can be
Now I know there’s lots of things to know I haven’t mastered yet
But it seems there’s real important stuff that grown-ups soon forget
So I’m sure we’d all be better off if we would just recall
That little poem hanging on the kindergarten wall

Chorus

©1988 by John McCutcheon. Published by Appalsongs (ASCAP).