Sassiness and Rage

“You know me, Anne,” my neighbor Phyllis confided to me from her porch. “I don’t put up with disrespect.”

Phyllis’s older son, fleeing his hurricane flooded home in Texas, had just come crawling back to her in desperation after being kicked out on his last visit. He brought his mouthy girlfriend and needy young children. Phyllis toiled all day to set him up with social service agencies. But he was mean and unappreciative, and eventually he and his girlfriend couldn’t hold their tongues.  Who could blame Phyllis for throwing them back out on the streets?

Yet even as I murmured my sympathy for her ordeal, immense sorrow filled me. What had this insistence on respect done for her? Her four adult children have turned their backs on her. They do not come to see her for years at a time, and their rare visits inevitably blow up in her face.

I found myself wondering at what point in their development Phyllis first drew the line in the sand with her children?  What made her need for respect so non-negotiable? Isn’t it an occupational hazard of parenthood, to be disrespected sometimes, in the heat of each battle?  I look back through the blur of thirty-some years, to when my two older children were first learning to sass me.  What would it have meant, at any given moment, to “not put up with” their antics?

This question certainly took front and center in my parenting years as our youngest kept flying into foul-mouthed tantrums at a moment’s notice, raging, raging against the hand he had been dealt. Everything that was wrong with his world as an adopted child was our fault.

Many observers, no doubt including his traumatized older siblings, wanted us to just  ”beat the shit out of him.” They believed in this facile solution as thoroughly as I believe that it was our respect for his chronic expressions of resentment that has allowed us to hold on to our relationship.

Of course what the parenting experts advocated was boundary setting, not beatings.  How could I argue with advice that felt so reasonable, so healthy? I am not a masochist. I knew I deserved respect, like all human beings. I longed for words of deference or gratitude from my son, like any other parent.

But the cultural insistence on a child’s respect felt viscerally uncomfortable to me. I did not trust the near-universal adult indignation towards disrespectful kids. When people advised some form of “tough love,” no matter how nuanced, I felt lonely. Perhaps I was worn down by ongoing trauma and over-identification with my child. Yet what I kept sensing in many of these adults was the energy of left-over terror from their own childhood, helplessness turned on its head. The time-honored adult chorus was fundamentally a projection: “This kid is going to get the better of me if I allow him to…I can’t let him manipulate me… I’ve got to let him know who’s boss, in no uncertain terms.”

A huge, essential drama was playing itself out in our home. Our son had landed mysteriously in a family where he did not belong, biologically or energetically.  To divert the flow of his rage with the trivializing message, “Be good, now. Follow the rules of civil discourse!” would serve as one more abandonment. And when I tried, it felt as if I was following instructions from a manual.

Instead, what I felt called to do was to embrace the full verbal spectrum of his rage, incarnating the unconditional love of God. No one had taught me this spiritual practice. Right or wrong, though, it was all I could trust.

Whenever our son was “out of control,” the greatest challenge my husband and I faced was to stay in our adult selves. We each carried our own wounds and temptations.  I fought the impulse to curl up in a ball. Gerry’s eyes would fill with panic even as the testosterone kicked in, panic that evoked images of a frightened little boy helpless before his powerful father. And his threatening words and truculent body language seemed perfectly, exquisitely designed to escalate our son’s behaviors. His reactivity made no adult sense.

One time we invited a close male friend over during one of these episodes; we thought he would help calm the storm. I watched in dismay as he too was taken over by the war-like instinct for one-upmanship. Soon this struggle escalated as well.

Our son had keen antennae for affronted adults, even well-spoken school counselors, spouting a line they could not live because they had never dared confront their own childhood wounds. He always responded with respect to teachers and counselors who saw through his behaviors straight into his better self. While he struggled in mainstream classrooms, he flourished in specialized schools where the adults laid none of their own insecurities on the kids they served. Even as they set boundaries, the boundary-setting engaged none of their energy. Their love did.

In Cincinnati there is a one particular inner-city high school where the student suspension rate is many times greater than the average. No one can quite figure out why. But I think it’s likely their school culture is preoccupied with the need for respect. Control lest you be controlled.

And so I grew sad listening to Phyllis using her tough language of adult entitlement when I could hear in her voice the chaotic rage of the traumatized child. There was nothing I could say that would open her eyes, and give her back her children.

I have strongly resonated through the years with Alice Miller, author of For Your Own Good, and with Bert Hellinger, founder of Family Constellation Work. Our children owe us nothing, not even respect.  In the natural order of human life, parents give, and their children turn around and give to the next generation. If we are lucky, and maybe a bit wise, respect will spring forth of its own accord.

Second-Guessing God

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. — Marianne Williamson

“Break my heart. Oh, break it again, so I can love more fully.” –Rumi

When I was in high school my friend Bev, from a devout Italian family, suggested I pray a novena for my father to be cured of his MS. I wasn’t quite sure what a novena was, but she wrote the required prayer out and I tucked it carefully in my purse with the thought, “What do I have to lose?”

That nine-day prayer soon stuck in my throat, though, and I abandoned it. Not because I was lazy, or didn’t care to end my dad’s suffering.  No, an urgent question stopped me cold. If it were this simple–just repeating a few words for nine days–to be granted a miracle, wouldn’t I be perpetually guilty for all the prayers I didn’t recite?

If the novena worked, I would be living in an impossibly burdensome universe. The idea that human beings might wield so much power, for good or for ill, left me breathless.

I was susceptible to this line of thinking because I already half-believed in such a universe. As a survivor of early sibling deaths, I could not shake off a pervasive sense of personal guilt. And no doubt it was easier for me to dwell on human power than on my experience of powerlessness.

In any case it saddened me repeatedly through the ensuing decades that human beings in general were doing a lousy job with all their power. It seemed to be so casually exercised in a lifetime of knee-jerk reactions and hopelessly confused choices, many of them just completely wrong-headed.  As for our creator, I resonated with Woody Allen’s line, “God is an under achiever.”

Fifteen years after I refused to recite that novena so that I could steer clear of overwhelming responsibility,  I sat in a doctor’s office with my infant son, weeping.  I could not bring myself to have him vaccinated with a DPT, nor could I not vaccinate him. He had just almost died of a seizure with meningitis (there was no vaccine for that in those days.) What if the DPT killed him?

My daughter, age two, was watching this scene.  Is it coincidence or karma that recently, as a new mother, she has felt moved to research the psychology of parents who choose not to vaccinate? She tells me that apparently the human psyche balks more at making a proactive choice with a slight risk of death, than at doing nothing and possibly taking a much greater risk. While she shakes her head over this lack of logic (she lives in Ecuador, where the choice seems obvious) I secretly recall that examining room, where a kind physician eventually offered to split the vaccine into half-doses. And I remember my feeling that no one should have such power over life and death as I did in that moment.

Recently my daughter was paying us a visit with her eight-month old baby, who had been highly sensitive since birth. I was distressed to see this beautiful grandchild starting her life out tense and overwrought. Her mother and I had both been this way as infants. I had heard that a local chiropractor “worked miracles” with young babies’ nervous systems.  So I was not powerless! I might just nip this family trait in the bud.

My daughter, though doubtful, accepted my offer graciously, in the spirit I would have had with that novena, if I hadn’t been so terrified of its success: “What do I have to lose?”

The treatment worked beautifully.  We watched her baby relax under the gentle manipulations of this healer, as if in one ten-minute session (there would be more) this little one simply surrendered forever the hyper-vigilance she had inherited from generations of ancestors.

We were all filled with exhilaration, gratitude, and delight. Yet I was not surprised when my daughter voiced some bewilderment. How could such a dramatic and infinitely sweet healing not raise questions about how the universe worked? I could only say, “I know, I know, it’s hard to take in,” as my heart welled with love for her.

I understood her puzzlement too well.  If her perfect baby was already in need of an adjustment to her nervous system, what did that mean for all the other babies of the world?  Why should one small choice, one encounter, change the trajectory of a child’s life? It felt too arbitrary, too capricious of the universe to work like this. Who would design a world so seeped in serendipity?

What if I hadn’t known about, or believed in, this chiropractor? What if we, like most of the world, could not afford to pay her? “As the twig is bent, so shall the tree grow,” says an old proverb. If we could unbend the twig of any human life so easily, how much more readily could we just leave it bent forever? We have too much power.

What good did it do to do everything “right,” as my daughter had in her pregnancy, in her labor, in her mothering, if some uncontrollable forces of family predisposition or accident trumped her wisdom and endless care? Too little power.

The same bewilderment has flooded me sometimes as I look back on all my own choices as a mother, and see that the heart-breaking messiness of our family’s life left its mark. For all my attempts, there were so many wrongs I could never heal. There were some I didn’t even see.

I still remember sitting in a Twelve-Step meeting decades ago, listening to an older woman speak with utter humility and acceptance about how her addictions had done great harm to her children. So tied in knots by my own young-mother perfectionism, I was awe-struck by her total lack of guilt. How could she be so peaceful about screwing up her children’s lives?

Perhaps at age sixty-four, I too am finally learning to live the Twelve Steps. After years of running from my life’s heart-breaking imperfection: the untimely deaths, unresolved hurts, mysterious tensions, endless anxiety, I feel a softening of the questions. And there is great joy in that.

 

You will find these themes explored in my memoir, Ollie, Ollie In Come Free, https://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X 

History Lessons

 

© Vasilis Ververidis | Dreamstime.com

At some early age I glimpsed that my entire universe was as miniscule in the grand scheme of things as the gnats I batted away on sultry summer days.  It dawned on me that countless other children like me had come and gone, century after century.  I’d discovered history.

The bravery of people in bygone eras entranced me. Would I ever dare embrace such trials and tribulations? I painstakingly mastered the johnny-cake recipe in my third grade workbook, sealing my bond with kids who had traveled up-river on rafts and through prairie grass on covered wagons, once-upon-a-time.

But it wasn’t long before I realized that history was mostly about a million incarnations of suffering, brought on often enough by natural disasters, but most consistently by human beings. Children no different from me had endured unimaginable cruelty, wrought by the larger-than-life kings and generals who clearly ran history. The king’s selfish whims, announced in his far-away palace, controlled children’s lives while the children had no control over the king’s.  It seemed capricious to me, as indeed it is.

Another great irony eventually struck me. Looking back at history, you knew what was coming. You knew when the tidal wave was going to arrive. But living forward, you never knew the next moment, so you just cluelessly carried on with your all-consuming routines. No matter if the monster waited stealthily on the sidelines, ready to pounce and destroy, and carry you into an entirely new reality.

Anything might create the upheaval. Historical crises seemed to arrive in grand, random spurts:  Viking raids on peaceful villages, slave traders carrying off your neighbors, forced marches of the Cherokee, blood baths of the Civil War. Could my own all-absorbing life be similarly disrupted? It seemed as improbable as a fairy-tale, yet history was not reassuring.

Like many young girls, I was haunted by Anne Frank’s diary.  The ordinariness of her routine, the complete absorption in her relationships. I knew what was coming. She did not.

But would it have made any difference? Don’t we all just carry on because that’s all we know how to do?

After giving birth to my daughter I gazed out the window of my hospital room at the thick smog, and wondered whether I’d had the right to bring a baby into this toxic environment we’d managed to create for ourselves. But then I was swept into the daily acts of changing diapers and sweet walks to the park.

Pregnant with my son when Chernobyl leaked its poisons, I was overrun by terror for a few moments. I asked myself as I watched my daughter rolling down a grassy hillside: was life as we knew it going to finally wind to a halt? Then I returned home to cook supper.

At my son’s christening I suddenly choked up as I prayed for the end of the arms race.  But then I forgot to care.  I threw a wonderful party.

How much does it matter that in all those centuries before radio or television or internet, wars and witch hunts and pillagings and massacres usually arrived out of the blue? Did people behave any differently when the dead body was actually hanging from the scaffold right in the town square, or soldiers were going door to door, as long as it wasn’t their own?

What is this disturbing yet oddly endearing survival strategy human beings have always had, to be convinced in the midst of creeping disaster that what really matters is whether there is enough salt in the soup, the baby has been burped, or a stitch has been dropped?

These kinds of questions have been much on my mind lately because I have observed how so many of us are managing to live our daily lives while we sense cataclysm welling up all around us and among us, unseen, and eerily reminding us of history we had relegated to textbooks.

Already in our neighborhoods, immigrant mothers hole themselves up with their anxious children, afraid to venture out to the grocery store. Epic cataclysm has already arrived for Syrians and millions of others, as they flee murderous violence, only to find themselves tossed about by edicts and the brutal whimsy of powerful strangers. It seems as if half the world is on the move, and the other half is terrified of being robbed of their own sense of normalcy.  Are these normal times for some but not others? For the lucky, but not the unlucky?

Meanwhile, what have I been doing, besides re-learning the drop-in-the-bucket skills of political activism?  I’ve carried on, as we all do when the calamity has not yet marked the portal of our own house. I’ve welcomed a new grandchild into the world.  I’ve invited old friends over for home-made pizza. At the learning center where I spend half-days, I’ve hunkered down at my computer to write reports, and coaxed a sixth grader to put together a coherent paragraph. I’ve Skyped with my daughter and her baby, who is beginning to smile at me from three thousand miles away.

But I am as baffled as ever.  How is it that all normal activities do not grind to a halt while we engage with the dragon breathing fire at the city gates?  What amazing adaptability human beings are graced with!  Is this how we have survived history’s sweeps, and will survive them yet again? Or is there something new that is called for, a lesson we are finally able to learn?

You might enjoy reading my book exploring childhood experiences and insights, Ollie Ollie In Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time.Visit www.annebernardbecker.com or https://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X

Finding Our Way in the Dark

Every December, winter’s darkness curls up inside me.  It incarnates as a palpable energy. Even as I relish the beauty and mystery of Christmas, I notice the familiar melancholy, left over from too many losses at this time of year, pulling me inward.

This year, though, the darkness I experience doesn’t even  belong to me.  Its center of gravity is neither in the solstice nor inside my psyche, but instead in the world around me.  So many of us are in mourning.  A terrible specter has come crashing through the pale winter skies ahead of Santa’s sleigh, announcing itself with a broad flourish of trumpets.

Some shrug off the sense of cataclysm. They point out we need these dark times to confront our illusions. They remind us that our country has always been controlled by power-hungry narcissists. You just couldn’t see them behind the curtain. Even the progressive departing President we so love has had to make a few offerings at the altar of the Powers-that-Be, the oil barons, the One Percent.

But somehow so many of us had come to believe we were finally on the right track these last eight years, ushering in a better world.  Were we completely deluded?

I feel the despair of these times lapping at my very sense of self. Am I then no longer a child of the Sixties, my heart beating with ideals of social transformation?  The ever-hopeful lens through which I have viewed the world for these many decades has seen me through three or four pointless, horrific wars, the propping up of numerous corrupt regimes in Latin America, the enduring devastation of Reaganomics, the terrors of nuclear “mutually assured destruction,” the ever tightening noose of mass incarceration, and the careless, clueless disregard for the fate of the planet. I always chose to hope through it all.

But now, with each day’s news of one nightmare appointment after another, I am beset by visions of a behemoth who “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.” (W.B.Yeats). What do I do with my hope?

I am perpetually restless. I can barely concentrate on projects that used to impassion me. They seem so trivial.  I constantly peruse stories on social media with the same grim focus I remember my parents displaying as they watched the funerals of JFK and Martin Luther King. In the weeks following the election, I chastised myself for my sudden addiction to social media.  But then I saw that we are all just gathered around together, watching another funeral.

Last night in a dream I missed the turn-off to the highway somewhere on the edge of Appalachia. I met an older couple perched uneasily in lawn chairs on a grassy hilltop high above a bend in a river. Their beautiful, sweeping vista was somehow marred. I could not place it at first, but then realized they were gazing out amidst fracking wells. They told me they had voted for Trump. They were defensive about it, and about the ugly machinery all around them. By way of explanation, they murmured the word “money. ” The thing there was way too little of. I felt too heartbroken to speak.  I got in my car and drove away.

Many say that it was such failures in the art of dialogue that have led us into such deep trouble. I don’t doubt this.  I know I will have to learn to do better with the outraged thudding inside my heart. But it feels like a lesson for another day. Right now, I need to reach for the light being gently passed around by my fellow mourners.

And I am watching these companions with heightened wonderment. Maybe we have been underestimating one another.  Our presence might just render our country less susceptible to the kinds of fascism and demagoguery that wreaked havoc eighty years ago.

Many in our generation have chosen to go deep into our own personal darkness and to embrace it, often at great cost. We’ve worried at times that we were self-centered navel-gazers. But in fact many of us have realized intuitively that the darkness in our psyches and family systems and spirits needed to be acknowledged, tended to, and transformed before we could effectively confront the gathering darkness outside of us.

Our generation has sought out healers of all stripes, a dazzling array of soul-menders the likes of which the cocky, wounded, alienated, repressed Western world has never seen. We brought out into daylight our own shadows, so that we would stop projecting them. We have gathered in creative and spiritual circles and practiced vulnerability. A sizable handful of us have learned to meditate and pray in myriad ways that have led us straight into the Darkness of the divine.

It may be that the awakening of a new, more expansive and clear-eyed consciousness will matter deeply in the current crisis. Maybe Carl Jung was speaking of us when he said, “Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself, and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world.”*

Even now we can see the first fruits: our eyes have gradually opened, our old rigidity and fear of the “other” inexorably fallen away.  We have come a long way in breaking down the strict boundaries of gender, sexual orientation, race and tribe that other generations took for granted. The backlash is inevitable, but it does not have to triumph.

And yes, somehow we brought up a generation of children who are the most open-minded, most grounded, least neurotic cohort our society has ever known. Though they cannot know the price we paid for their strong sense of self, our children are an extraordinary gift to the world.

Is it just possible that we are now ready to find our way together in the darkness?

 

*Psychology and Religion” (1938)

 

Trading Cookies for Socks in County Jail

All Side Effects May Occur painting by Dan Becker danpaulbecker.com
All Side Effects May Occur
painting by Dan Becker
danpaulbecker.com

Recently a family member spent twenty days in a northeastern Ohio county jail. Upon his release, he phoned me, and was soon overcome by anguished sobs. We wept together.

I’d expected to feel pure joy at that moment. But, like him, I’d crossed through a portal I’d never wanted to enter, and the trauma couldn’t just be shaken off.  I wonder now if it ever quite goes away:  the intense vulnerability, the fear, the survivor guilt, the peculiar rage. Maybe it’s just what people live with once they have been personally touched by the “system.”

But why the rage? Hadn’t he deserved his sentence? After all, he could have gotten two months.  Didn’t he need to be taught a lesson? Isn’t that what a smug letter writer in the Cincinnati Enquirer recently proclaimed: “do the crime, do the time?” So simple: what don’t you understand?

But the waves of rage that kept me awake during his incarceration were more unbearable than any I have ever known.  Where did they come from? Whose were they? Who were they aimed at?

My family member lived in a pod of about thirty other guys.  He was given three meals a day, a change of garb twice a week (no underwear), air-conditioning (set way too high), a thin mat for his steel bunk, one blanket, and flip-flops.  To while away the hours, he could choose to watch t.v. (lots of cop shows), gamble at cards to win an extra lunch, pace the floor of the common room for exercise, or sleep all day.

Too cold to sleep, he managed to barter two desserts for a pair of socks. After ten days, with a money order from home, he was able to purchase a pair of boxers at the commissary. He cupped his hands at the faucet whenever he needed a drink, since there were no drinks with meals. He was allowed two books, if sent direct from a bookstore. He got to make frequent phone calls home, since he had family willing to pay the exorbitant fees. At 5:00 a.m., for no particular reason, or certainly not a reason he was informed of (because no one was informed of anything) he and the others received breakfast in a bag, which they saved for later on. Then they attempted, with lights glaring, to go back to sleep till 7:00.

I know human beings often endure greater hardships, which sometimes they choose (as with soldiers) and sometimes are inflicted upon them by natural or man-made disasters. Occasionally, some are ennobled by the adversity.

But somehow the hardships of county jail felt to me custom-designed for building rage. I was stunned by the cute little deprivations, the petty indignities.  Why no underwear? Why the neglecting to inform people ahead of time that they could bring money for the commissary? Why the long routine lockdowns where you were confined to your bunk? Why the short nights and endless days? Why just one hour of fresh air on Tuesdays and Fridays in a small courtyard, playing basketball in flip-flops with blistered feet?

Ignorant as I was of the rationale for all this, my gut churned with a dark explanation: making others squirm is just so satisfying. For everyone from county officials to high-school educated corrections officers, wielding power over those who are down-and-out works wonders.

It allows us to forget that we too could slip some day. We might have one too many drinks and plow into a human being on the highway, might get scared shitless and pull a trigger, might become slave to an addiction, all due to our own unfathomable wounds, combined, perhaps, with poverty, desperation, mental illness, racism, or plain, horrifying bad luck.

When we glibly cry, “Lock them up!” we have to bury all that we have learned about the fragility of the human psyche, the life-long effects of trauma and “Adverse Childhood Experiences.”  We have to ignore how ineffectual punishment has been shown to be in transforming human beings, how it just mostly mows people down, strips them of hope, numbs or embitters them. Psychologically sophisticated parents do not whip their children and send them to bed without their supper. When they are in trouble, they seek help for them.

How is it that so few of us question incarceration for all the hurting children who grow up and magically morph into “those bad guys out there?”  We still assume that society has the right and duty to waste whole human lives for weeks and months, or (in prisons) for years on end, depriving them of all that keeps human beings human:  family, warm touch, expanses of sky, trees and grass, meaningful work, community, the freedom to move, to learn, and personal agency over one’s life.

In the dead of the night, images of so many people locked away with impunity in this strangely vindictive country flooded my imagination. And I could not silence the nagging question:  how long will we keep claiming the right to cage our fellow human beings?

I know sometimes people need to be isolated from society for a while because they are dangerous. But if that were our real motive for incarceration, wouldn’t the harsh conditions we set up be totally gratuitous? Our prisons might look like some Scandinavian prisons, where people actually lead real lives.

Anyway, with these guys in the county jail, we were not talking danger. We were talking mostly heroin. Or mistakes. Stupid crimes, heartless law enforcement.

Surely we can find other ways to hold one another accountable for our wrongdoings, ways that don’t squander God-given lives in deadly boredom and routinely destroy entire families. Surely the need for revenge, understandable in those who are victimized, needs to be gently pried loose from its timeless place of honor in U.S. institutions.

The rage that sabotaged me during those nights often morphed into fury at my husband. I had to remind myself it was not aimed at him. And in fact it seemed to come from well beyond me. I was feeling what the guys in that pod didn’t dare feel, lest it exploded, and led to further punishment. The rage of powerlessness, many of them wondering from day to day how their wives and children were doing, but with families too poor to afford phone calls. Or the rage, hidden even from themselves, at watching those with more resources revel in their Saturday haul of luxuries from the commissary: ramen noodles, a cup, deodorant, an extra blanket.

Or the unendurable rage of knowing nothing about their own future, how long they would be stuck in this limbo of county jail, where no one bothers with any humanizing services; so many guys waiting for their court hearing, waiting for a spot to finally open in rehab, waiting to be transferred to the bigger and better holding pens they call prisons, some day, who knows when.

I can shoulder all this anger on behalf of these men only because I am not under the thumb of the system. Only because my spirit is actively nourished, my emotions honored, my dignity unquestioned.  But isn’t that what all of us need, every moment, every season of our lives? Isn’t that what we owe one another?

A Broken Alleluia

1-NJ Baptism-002
I wonder if some societies mark breakups with a ritual. In our culture we prefer to just move on, to let the past be the past.  But isn’t this an illusion? When people’s lives are intimately entwined, surely we impact each other forever.

I know this is true not just of couples, but of communities, if we are lucky enough to belong to one. In 2001, three months after 9/11, the community of New Jerusalem, which I’d participated in for sixteen years, splintered apart. We’d been embroiled in bitter conflict for a long time when suddenly most of the long-time members decided to walk out.

I still carry a grave sense of responsibility for my own role in that event.  Even though a smaller, more intimate New Jerusalem carried on, and is still miraculously vibrant, the rancorous rupturing of the original community makes for a heavy legacy. A certain energy of sadness and hurt still lingers after all these years. I’ve always wished we could have mourned together what we lost, and made amends for our carelessness with one another.

New Jerusalem has an extraordinary history. It sprang up out of the reforms that swept through the Catholic church in the 1970’s. Flush with a radical vision, members moved into households together, attended peace rallies, and prayed their way through myriad miracles. They fell in love not only with the Spirit, but with one another. They married and started families.

By the time my husband Gerry and I joined them,  they were bonded to one another by over a decade of history. Common traditions, memories, and complex layers of love and forgiveness created a tight network. How could newcomers ever share that deep connection?

Churches, even more than other human systems, replicate our families.  At New Jerusalem  I was plagued by a familiar sense of having arrived too late. Once I had a nightmare that my car wrecked on the bank of a hill, and I discovered all the core members happily gathered around picnic tables, sharing a weekly potluck I had never been invited to. In real life, a long-time member dying of cancer invited us all to pray over her.  I was paralyzed with a sense of being an impostor: surely, I thought, my prayer would mean nothing to her.

An added hurdle was that just like in a family, the older members retained their leadership roles. Newer members often struggled to find a niche. While some succeeded, others came and left again, quietly, without leaving a ripple.

During those years I often felt that I was sitting atop vast caverns of untapped creative energy.  Sometimes I seized the initiative, preaching a homily, running a kids’ program, even leading a public vigil against the first Iraq War. But the impostor feeling continued. One Lent Gerry and I were given permission to lead all the Sunday liturgies. When people complained of our over-exuberance, though, I resigned in humiliation. There was an intense rhythm to my struggles: rouse myself from invisibility, give my all, then boomerang back into bottomless shame at my audacity.

While NJ activated my wounds (and everyone else’s as well)  I never doubted that my longing for a more inclusive, vulnerable community was a vital expression of God’s longing.  I kept imagining all that we could be together. Unlike in a parish, we lay people were totally in charge, unhampered by clerical authority. We brought in priests to help lead our Sunday liturgies, but then they went home. We could live like the early church, if we wanted to.

By 2000, though, I came to believe that few members wanted what I wanted, and clearly not with my fervor. Gerry and I started searching for a new spiritual community among local Protestant churches. Our pilgrimage led us nowhere: one church was too formal, another sexist, another one without spark. We missed New Jerusalem:  how could we not?

And so we decided to do what all the others who had quietly left over the years had never done:  we returned and, along with a good friend, stood up publicly at the end of our service, asking for what we wanted and needed.

We experienced an ominous silence as people listened. The starkness of our impassioned plea struck some raw nerve.  Perhaps it felt like an ultimatum.

From there on out, passions ran high. Members took sides. An us-against-them energy was set loose. For those kindred spirits who’d silently yearned for years to use their gifts more fully,  the rush that came from being finally heard was exhilarating. Structures began to loosen; roles became more fluid. For those who hated conflict it was a miserable time. For the older members, I can only imagine a mix of heart-ache, bewilderment, anger and betrayal.

dreamstime_xs_4695767After the community was pruned so abruptly, new life blossomed forth: shared leadership,  deepened intimacy, the unfolding of hidden gifts.  But we still held onto New Jerusalem’s identity and traditions, the stirring music, the powerful healing prayers.

Fifteen years later,  we are a small circle of aging people.  We see each other’s faults and foibles too well.  Our prayers are deeply personal.  Our awareness of Spirit is exquisite. The sense of blessedness that has moved the community for over forty years has only grown more precious.

But there is no way to close the lid on our history, our poorly ended love affair. It still longs to be brought out into the light, grieved, and honored as one of those passionately flawed wonders God and human beings enjoy creating together.

Side by Side

A few weeks ago we invited the family of our son’s girlfriend to Sunday dinner.  We’d resurrected this old-fashioned ritual when Tony moved back to town. His girlfriend had been raving about our meals to her parents, though it was pretty basic fare, usually including broccoli and cheese sauce because that’s the only way I had ever gotten Tony, 1-MOV00026now age twenty-three, to eat vegetables.

It was a classic setup for awkward conversation, of course, hosting total strangers who, like us, harbored the secret thought we might become family some day.  But the parents and little sister were lively and fun, the lasagna was decidedly runny but tasty, and no one embarrassed the “kids.” We only touched lightly on politics and religion and the interesting fact that our guests were black and Gerry and I were white.  I went to bed that night feeling a little flushed with the social adventure but happy.

Yet at three-thirty in the morning, the usual hour when specters and bogeymen come out of hiding, as if they can read the clock, I was jolted awake.  An urgent and horrifying truth pervaded my whole being.  It was quite beyond embarrassment, even beyond guilt. It wasn’t emotional. It wasn’t even totally mine.  It was a visitation, and I found myself gazing right into its eyes, steadily, fascinated and repelled.

“White privilege,” a voice in my head whispered. I began replaying through a new lens the casual questions we had asked in the course of our conversation, the what-neighborhood-did-you-grow-up-in and the where-have-you-traveled inquiries.  And gradually my vision expanded:  I was seeing our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and the immense gulf created by the troubling history of our two races.  I was aghast at the false innocence permeating our interaction.

Here in my dining room had sat the Elephant that no one ever talks about, even if they get as far as our two families did, sitting down together for a meal. How often does it even happen?  If it weren’t for adopting a bi-racial baby boy twenty-three years ago, would Gerry and I actually go to our graves like so many white Americans barely having to confront personally this peculiar reality we live with day after day?

Even in my mixed-income, mixed-race city neighborhood, you can get by without noticing much. It’s true I shuddered at Tony’s observation as a child, how all the professionals in our neighborhood were white, and how if you were black you were poor.  We tried eagerly to point out that in a couple of other city neighborhoods, there were plenty of black professionals, but our cheerful reassurances never worked.

When Tony was three, he met the neighbor boy who has remained like a brother to him. And we grew close to his gutsy, devoted single mother with her infectious laugh. Our bond allowed her to confidently sign her son up for the soccer league because we had a car that worked. We learned to joke about our cultural differences:  Q. stubbornly insisted that kids should wear jackets outside and greet their elders respectfully. We learned where to find a good barber, and served each other turkey soup on winter days.

It became difficult,  though, to turn a blind eye to the fact that we inhabited separate worlds.  Gerry and I owned two cars, and except for a couple of trials of dented jalopies, our friends took the bus.  We signed our children up for chiropractic visits, while R. just put up with pain. When Tony floundered academically, we scraped up the money and transported him into the suburbs every day to attend a special school. We asked family members to help pay for his summer camp.

Q. was a devoted mother, adept at navigating the system, but her limited choices confounded me. She observed our privileged life without a hint of resentment. In her place I would have seethed.  I had started noticing my rage whenever as a woman I was stereotyped or demeaned. Because my ancestors had come to this continent for opportunity, not in the hull of a slave ship, I found my entitled soul instinctively crying out at any indignity,  “How dare they?”

Indeed, how dared we?

The thing is, I have always seen the dynamic so well in other cultural contexts.  Our parents’ friend from El Salvador, so many years ago, gushed about how she’d supplied a piñata for her maid’s child’s birthday party. “A child needs a piñata!” she exclaimed. And I remember wondering if she ever questioned not just the lack of a piñata, but the whole system of two sets of people living side by side, their expectations defined by the class they were born into.

But here in Cincinnati my neighbors and I greet each other on the street, then go our separate ways. We return to homes that often starkly reflect the legacy of disparate histories we never chose, yet these shape every aspect of our lives, and, most deplorably, those of our children.

During those early morning hours when I was visited by the truth, I calmed myself by sitting in the lamplight putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It was so lovely, the way the pieces fit together, just right, just so, and a beautiful new picture was shaping up before my eyes. It felt like a prayer.

Being Big, Being Small

1-Mom and PJ
My mother with great-grandson P.J.

I don’t know at what point in recent U.S. history children routinely started feeling wiser than their parents. This attitude felt so normal to me in my young adulthood, I never questioned it. Mothering my feisty teen-age daughter eventually made me wonder if something was wrong. Surely the “Question Authority” button I’d once sported wasn’t meant to be taken quite so seriously? But it was only in attending my first family constellation workshop in 2005 that I finally realized how much this topsy-turvy parent-child thing had been sapping my energy for decades.

There is something surprisingly conservative about family constellation work, developed in Germany in the 1980’s by Bert Hellinger. When I tell people I am trained in this healing modality they assume I am involved in some New Age practice that is way-out, and that’s why so few people in the U.S. have heard of it. But maybe its insights just don’t easily resonate with the rebellious, psychologically pseudo-sophisticated North American soul. I will never forget how in my first workshop I gazed into the eyes of a stranger who was representing my mother, and saw the woman who gave birth to me in all her mysterious grandeur for the first time.

A core insight of family constellation workshops is that we can never be “bigger” than our parents. When we secretly look down on those who gave us life, judging them, dissecting their faults, we lose our own grounding. I didn’t gain this insight from any of the mainstream psychotherapists whom I’d worked with through the years.  No, it was as if once the idea of blaming our mothers for all our problems entered the air many decades ago, even the most progressive forms of psychotherapy seemed to be infected by it.

I recently heard an interview with author Meredith Maran (http://diymfa.com/podcast/episode-81-why-we-write-about-ourselves-interview-with-meredith-maran#.) She has written several memoirs, the first one at age forty-five, the most recent one at sixty-five. She regrets the hurt she caused her mother in her first book, and is sincerely hoping her own children will gain more perspective before they write about her!  She reflects that we could all easily write an entirely new portrait of our parents every ten years.

I understood, because in the twenty years between my first attempts to portray my mother’s complex character in writing, and the last revisions of my memoir Ollie Ollie In Come Free, my perspective changed profoundly. I was taken aback by my original presumptuousness.

I remember back to my teen-age years, when I, like most kids in our culture, first began to set myself above my mother.  I thought Mom was too wrapped up in her own family, not self-sacrificing enough, because she did not bake cookies for neighbors in need as some other mothers did. I thought she and Dad should take in a foster child. Never mind that she had seven kids, was dealing with Dad’s multiple sclerosis, and was up to her ears in community commitments.

I wonder, looking back on my adolescent judgments, whether they were my early way of dealing with helpless feelings as I first became conscious of a hurting world.  They were my cry of “Someone do something! This is intolerable!”  Since I myself could have so little impact on the world around me, I thought my mother, the all-powerful, was just being selfish and insular. And where had I received my desire to make a better world? From my mother!

I can honestly affirm now, relatively late in life, that I really do not know what made my mother tick.  I can only reflect on what I observed in her, entirely through my own lens.  Her personality traits, the ones that so maddened me, the ones that I blamed for my own trials and tribulations in life, may or may not have been as I saw them. How can I possibly know?

One of my younger sisters, who took care of Mom during her years of failing memory, and eventually failing body, used to judge her with as jaded an eye as I did.  But during those years of nursing her, the scales fell away from my sister’s eyes. So she awaited the publication of my memoir with deep anxiety about how I would portray Mom, so soon after her death. She did not want me to violate her transformed love and respect. When she read my book, she was greatly relieved, and I was relieved that she was relieved.

When I first started writing my memoir, it was to voice my truth, and this included my sometimes harsh version of truth about my parents. By publication, after eight years of family constellation work and many tender moments with my aged mother, I knew I had no truth to offer, just my own subjective experience. How could it be otherwise?

What we experience viscerally in constellation workshops is that children really never can know their parents.  The parents’ lives — their dreams, wounds, joys, disillusionments — lie beyond the scope of their children’s understanding. Ultimately, all we can do is bow to our parents (we sometimes do this literally) and the gift of life they have given us.

 

For more information on Anne’s family constellation work, visit www.ceremoniesfamilyconstellations.com

The Outing of Mercy

 

© Yaoshengbo | Dreamstime.com - Kwan-yin Statue And Dragon Photo
© Yaoshengbo | Dreamstime.com – Kwan-yin Statue And Dragon Photo

It took my breath away last month to read “mercy” in the headlines of the Cincinnati Enquirer’s mostly right-wing editorial page. Twice in a week’s time, too! The plea was to get over punishing addicts, and give them real help.

It seems mercy is finally coming out of the closet. It has been in hiding a long time, in fact forever–in church, in state, in schools, in courts. Pope Francis has proclaimed this the jubilee year of mercy. Meanwhile even in our perennially merciless nation, the only thing the Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that our criminal justice system needs a major overhaul. They don’t yet dare use the word “mercy,” but mercy’s in the air…way, way overdue.

I’ve had this thing for mercy since I was very young. It’s caused me no end of problems, this constant desire to get everybody off the hook. I’ve been accused quite recently by a lawyer in our family of not believing in evil. I never quite know what to do with such accusations. Certainly I recognize evil when I see it, and it’s rampant, and it makes me weep. But my confusion lies in holding individuals accountable for it.

This is probably related to my ongoing arguments with my husband over free will. I have never been convinced in my gut that it exists.  It seems to me that everyone is thoroughly shaped by the energies of their family system and the events of their lives.  The very fact that I can see clearly enough to make morally wise choices is through no particular virtue of my own.

Nor is my longing for mercy in the world something I have chosen and cultivated. I really believe, with all my heart, that this troublesome fixation was planted in me by divine grace, and nurtured by circumstance. It was probably fed most by survivor guilt after my siblings’ deaths.  Even though I was consistently “good” growing up, I always secretly felt guilty. So I identified privately with perpetrators. Victims didn’t need my love — they had everyone else’s. But who would love the guilty one?  Even God was planning on abandoning them in hell. Being more merciful than God himself, as others defined him, made me very lonely.

My inability to violate the call of mercy deep within my being caused me heart-wrenching confusion when I struggled to give my growing children consequences for their misbehaviors. I could never feel at home in the acts of tough love required of me as a parent. Disciplining the kids felt so hopelessly difficult and unnatural, all this bracing of the will, shutting off of the heart, holding in of the breath. How did it all come so easily to other parents?

On a miserable stint as a classroom teacher in a local boys’ high school many years ago, I found myself unable to dole out detentions for misbehaviors. They called these “j.u.g.,” standing for “justice under God,” and somehow it seemed all the male teachers enjoyed handing them out. I kept getting inside the boys’ heads, imagining their point of view, minimalizing their transgressions.

They walked all over me, of course. I kept groping my way in the dark towards a more humane, cooperative system. I was told I was trying to “feminize” the classroom, that boys could not respond to my attempts at community. Counselors and teachers, with their hard-ass energy, tried to toughen me up, reminding me this was for the good of the whole class (which I didn’t doubt) but in each act of heart-tightening, I felt I was violating something sacred in my own nature.

I am plagued by compassion for even the most “hardened” criminal.  I shield my eyes from stories in the paper about people getting sentenced for crimes that, it seemed to me, were almost accidents. While involving myself in movements for social justice, whenever the call turns from reform of racist practices to seeking guilty verdicts for individuals, I can’t participate. I turn off public radio in the midst of stories that pit my endless sorrow for the victims with my anguish for the perpetrator. Within me there’s just a huge, global pity for the whole human race.

I place my hope in the budding movement toward mercy. It is fundamentally a great shift in our societal energy field. One outcome could be the blossoming of “restorative justice.” Instead of the time-honored retributive justice system that fills our prisons to overflowing, this new vision holds people responsible for their actions while finding ways to restore dignity to their lives.  This I might be able to deal with.

So this is the year of mercy. But maybe we are meant to go beyond the moral dualism that mercy implies. Maybe the insight we are slowly gaining as a society is that a moralistic lens is not helpful. Labeling those who struggle as “less-than” will not cleanse society of its impurities. Our age-old, knee-jerk, ego-protective closing of the heart to one another’s wounds, sorrows, limitations, and failures will not lead us into a better world. What is helpful, and real, I think, is to recognize that we are all in this together.

 

to see more on the theme of “mercy” in my life, see chapter 19 in my book: http://www.amazon.com/Ollie-Come-Free-Memoir-Swallowed/dp/162652968X

 

 

 

Wishes

dreamstime_xs_37875333My daughter, at age thirty-one, confessed during her recent holiday visit that she had always longed for an American Girl doll when she was growing up.  I received her comment with my mother-guilt in full throttle. I chastised myself for never realizing how much it mattered to her, and thought, “If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy her Samantha.”

I sat there judging myself for the intransigence of my simple-lifestyle principles when the children were growing up. Was I just cheap, as they claimed? Silently, miserably, I replayed images of those lost years: my daughter prancing into the living room on Christmas morning, taking in all the toys surrounding our tinseled tree. I noticed for the first time how she fixed her smile, and swallowed her disappointment, and cheerfully embraced the doll-who-wasn’t-what-she-wanted. And I wept inwardly, for her, for myself, for the hurt that I caused when I could so easily have made her happy.

I guess you could call it a Christmas illusion. Or a mother illusion. Or a human illusion. How convinced I have been at the deepest level of my being that what defines a good parent is properly psyching out my children’s desires and giving them what they want!

Confronted throughout the holidays by my three adult children’s unflinchingly honest reflections on our family’s past, I found myself riding waves of regret. It was the first Christmas in three years that they had all come home.  They’d added to the mix now our daughter’s Ecuadorian husband and our older son’s girlfriend. We’d been separated by extreme distance and circumstance. Perhaps too by our fears of re-awakened expectations and un-examined hurts?

Our life together in years past was marked by our own private form of suffering, like many families, and our holidays were swollen with drama no one ever asked for in their letters to the North Pole. How to explain it all but to say that our youngest, the little one we adopted at birth and cherished, never felt at home with us and could not stop raging from his earliest years at the arbitrariness of his life?

So we gathered for the holidays amid unresolved trauma, nostalgia for all that we had done “right,” hope and wariness, stress levels one could cut with a knife, widely disparate needs, a remarkable spirit of truth-speaking, and the rich, undeniable love for one another I prayed would carry us through.

We were strangely accident prone at first. A cloth napkin burned to ashes on the stove top and left a hole in the kitchen counter; a prized candelabra was swept off its perch and smashed into dozens of pieces. And the visiting girlfriend discovered she was wildly allergic to our cat, so we spent half of Christmas afternoon madly scrubbing down the house we’d already worked so hard to clean, trying to get rid of the dander. I found myself rehearsing cliches: “roll with the punches,” “go with the flow” as miscommunications multiplied and we never had the expected number of people at any meal.

After a few days, just as I was settling into the unpredictability, learning to fine-tune my communication style, re-adjusting myself to being ever available but never over-attached to my children’s presence or crushed by their absence, there came the type of quick-flash explosion that used to rock our family routinely, shaking us all to the core: the violent words, the overturned chair, the stomping out of the house. And the rest of the week was colored by a renewal of sibling resentments, but with new-found, startling compassion seeping through the cracks.

When they were all gone, after ten days, I cried bitterly. I wept because I had failed once again to give my children what they wanted. They had arrived with expectations, and departed with disappointment at what we could not achieve as a family. It was just as it had always been, too much for us all, because the template of family harmony that was nestled so deep within our spirits could not manifest itself, not this Christmas, maybe never?

Yet as I surrendered my grief to a wider field of awareness, a truth crept in. My children never did need me to give them everything they wanted. I did not need my parents to give me all that I yearned for either. Even while my mother lay awake each Christmas Eve worried that one child’s pile of gifts was bigger than another, my psyche was already taking a baby-step toward the lifetime challenge of embracing disappointment.

Just as I would not for a minute trade my hard-earned maturation, shaped through longing and loss, for superficial happiness, so too my children’s souls know better than to think that they incarnated on this earth to be fulfilled in their every wish. As I watch them struggle and yearn, I see their adult spirits slowly taking shape, so much more complicated and multi-layered than if I had orchestrated it all.

I still wish I had given my daughter that doll. I still wish with all my heart that I could have given our youngest a sense of groundedness and belonging. I would love to have had the foresight and God-like ability to make all the right choices, rendering my children’s journeys sublimely tranquil and sanguine. But I have caught yet another glimpse this Christmas of how life is so much bigger, and more breathtaking, than our wishes.

for information on my book, Ollie Ollie in Come Free: A Memoir of Swallowed Time, see www.annebernardbecker.com

for information on my workshops: www.ceremoniesfamilyconstellations.com