Creepy Goings-On

One August day in 2004, my husband Gerry and I boarded a train in Chicago for Salt Lake City. We dragged along our eleven-year-old son and his friend, who had suddenly morphed into a teenager. Our plan was to visit my old college roommate Donna, and then to explore the canyons by car.

Besides the grumpy, fast-food addicted kids, the thrills and pitfalls of Amtrak, and the splendors of Utah, what stood out about this journey was my introduction to conspiracy literature. Not the right-wing variety now plaguing our country, but the spooky, oddly spiritual stuff popularized in The Da Vinci Code.  Donna’s husband Juan had filled their home with so many boxes of such findings that we had to stay in a motel.

The first time I’d met Juan, in 1974, Donna and I were graduating from Indiana University.  I was shocked that her boyfriend was a rabid Republican. Now, all these years later,  he still had no use for liberals, but only because he considered us naive. He spent three days indoctrinating Gerry and me about how both political parties (not just Republicans) were simply the puppets of the global elite.

We left Salt Lake with our world turned upside down.  Our entertainment on the highway was deciphering the illuminati symbolism of corporate logos on semis. Back in Cincinnati, we poured through Juan’s recommended tomes. These authors’ version of history was rife with secret societies, dark money, and  assassinations. Yet it all was disturbingly well documented.  I was dismayed by the revelations about historical figures and politicians I’d admired.

I mostly kept this life-altering perspective to myself, though, not wanting people rolling their eyes at me. The idea that we were living out the nefarious agenda of the then-unnamed One Percent was deemed quite crazy. Surely even the super-rich just aren’t that united, the argument went.

The conspiracy theorists’ predictions for the next decade or two were so grim that I eventually turned to Gerry and declared that, true or not,  I refused to live my life with such a depressing world-view. If there was some kind of master plan, I didn’t want to know about it. I would just carry on “as if.”

I certainly didn’t want to believe that even seemingly miraculous breakthroughs were cleverly manipulated by the shadowy elite. I chose to work on Obama’s campaign, and rejoiced with all my friends when he took the helm. For a good eight years, I tried hard to believe an equitable world was on its way, peacefully evolving with quiet inevitability.

But I never really could rid myself of the specter of the ever-tightening global noose. It haunted me with each day’s news.  Wealth was being steadily concentrated in the hands of the few before our very eyes. The middle class was disappearing.  Minimum wage had long ceased to be a living wage. When enlightened municipalities tried to create more just wage structures,  gerrymandered state legislators overrode them.

I have not dared to revisit the conspiracy books, but I’m pretty sure even some of their most mind-numbing predictions have come true. Even the word “creepy,” once used to describe my horror at the Skull and Bones initiation rites, now applies to daily reality in Washington and Moscow. And it no longer feels extreme to imagine the manipulators at the top of the “pyramid” saying,  “We let you have your black president: what a perfect ploy for feeding the flames of white supremacy!”

As wildfires rage and flood waters swirl, most everyone I know struggles with a sense of doom every bit as oppressive as that which I tried to ward off all those years. It’s become pretty clear now how interlocking systems have been playing us all for a long time. And our heroes?  I am reeling to learn of the deliberately racist policies of Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration. I had no idea.

It is really hard waking up every morning feeling thoroughly creeped out.   I don’t know what to make of heroes or villains in the past or the future. But surely everything is coming to a head.

Juan’s conspiracy mentors actually offered a surprising vision of hope, once you embraced their gloom.  In progressive circles we haven’t traditionally put much stock in great cosmic battles between good and evil. But these theorists’ insistence on the need for a radically new heaven and a new earth seemed oddly familiar. After all, my Masters thesis at Fordham University, received lukewarmly by my complacent professors,  was entitled “Hope and the Coming of the Kingdom of God.”

We are told the global elite secretly wield sophisticated spiritual tools. You would hardly guess this, witnessing the depravity of those who are supposedly just their underlings. But conspiracy theorists are convinced that to undermine their power, we have to become more spiritually alive.  We need to raise the “vibrational level” of humanity.

A few years after our trip to Salt Lake City I discovered The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault. This Episcopal priest explores how Western Christianity lost it way by the fourth century, cutting itself off from the ancient Wisdom tradition that lies at the “headwaters of all the great sacred paths.” St. Augustine was convinced that human beings were too lost in sin to dare to hope for spiritual wholeness. And surely no one could encounter God without Holy Mother Church.  Christianity became at best anemic, at worst as evil a force as conspiracy theorists claim it to be. Spiritual practices like meditation, so central in the East, are still foreign to most Westerners, who have just sort of blandly plodded along at low levels of consciousness, leaving a dubious trail of compromised institutions.

I couldn’t help but notice Bourgeault’s offhand comments that in Medieval Europe time-honored spiritual tools for “raising our level of being” were co-opted and distorted by secret societies like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians.  Hmm…It seemed the conspiracy theorists were onto something!

Maybe they are. If ever there was a time to find out, this would be it.

 

All that We Hide

In our death-denying culture many of us dread going to funerals, and attend only out of obligation. But through the years I’ve found myself mysteriously drawn to many where there was no family expectation of my presence.  We had long since lost touch, and I would not be missed. I pay close attention to these impulses. Usually there is a reason for them.

When I came across Janet’s obituary in the newspaper, the pull was unmistakable. I had only met her a handful of times, mostly in those long-ago days when her daughter, whom I loved, lived next door. I knew little of Janet’s eighty-eight years, her marriage, her friendships, her  agonies, her losses, her victories. But she had written my husband and me a condolence note in 1982 after the shattering stillbirth of our first baby.  I still recall her small, neat penmanship and my renewed flow of tears. Ever afterwards, our casual greetings stirred in me a sense of comfort and warmth.

The Catholic parish hosting her funeral was a progressive one, but I was still wary.  Nowhere are the mysteries of life and death lifted up more exquisitely than at Catholic funerals,  yet the Church is always terrified of things getting out of hand. I have known several grieving families who were instructed to swallow their natural human longing for heartfelt eulogies or personal stories with directives like, “Save them for the luncheon.”  They were supposed to be satisfied with the safe, generic words of the priest. Never mind how this left them feeling hurt and empty.

It was a welcome surprise, then, that at Janet’s funeral the priest chose to throw clerical control to the wind and to make space for the family to speak. What a difference it made! Suddenly here we all were, intimately accessing the outpouring of love and heightened spiritual energy of a large family that seemed to have lived life consciously and with heart.

I jumped, every nerve awakened, when the oldest daughter began her opening tribute. Her words rang out like a speech from King Lear. “My mother was tormented by scrupulosity all her life.”

“She’s going to plumb the depths,” I marveled.  And she did, eloquently.  She told her mother’s story.  Not simply the stock narrative of an self-sacrificing woman, nor even the familiar saga of a strong, intelligent matriarch slipping into dementia. No, it was the nuanced, complicated, heart-breaking story of a soul struggling with her own personal demons.

I wept as she quoted a well-loved priest who had spent time with Janet while he himself was dying of cancer.  He’d confided that all his sufferings paled in comparison with the hell of Janet’s entanglement in guilt, her inability to believe in her own worth. Was there anyone in that sanctuary who couldn’t resonate with the sorrow of this human predicament?

One of the sons, who had become a Baptist minister despite his mother’s worries for his soul, evoked in his homily the scene of the “Prodigal Daughter.” Janet could never take in people’s praise for her goodness. Her response was always a muttered, “Well…” Well, if you only knew how unworthy I really am…

I hungrily pictured her finally falling into the arms of the unconditional Lover she could not quite imagine.  Was it possible this would happen to me too some day?

All of us, the family, the community, the long-gone priest, Janet in her new freedom and fullness of life, were immersed together in the ineffable. Even though the complete truth of Janet’s life could never really be known (because children cannot truly understand their parents), still, we were being ushered into new realms of awareness.

What soared in that church was the opposite of Janet’s dismissive “Well…”  It was the raising up not only of the beauty of one particular life, but of the hidden wounds that haunt us all.  In honoring their mother’s core struggle, this family poured the truth of our own lives over us like a glorious oblation.

Interestingly, though, I noticed a familiar voice inside me protesting, wanting to protect Janet from being so intimately exposed in death. I wondered:”Wouldn’t she die of shame…with all this revealing of her innermost secrets?”

“But wait,” I realized with an odd jolt. “She is already dead!”

How hard it is for human beings to remember that our shame does not survive the grave! We carry shame all our lives, though it is often poorly recognized and unacknowledged, a millstone that subtly dictates our every move, blocks us from knowing each other’s inner grandeur, and keeps us from expressing fully our likeness to the Divine. We assume our shame is virtuous, preventing us from making fools of ourselves. We are thus convinced that when we guard secrets in death, we honor the person to whom they belonged.

But at that funeral, this illusion fell away. With her great tragic flaw  transformed, we saw Janet with the eyes of God.

And I grasped that when our shame is finally laid aside, in life or in death, we can see that it is merely a flimsy memento of our smaller self.  What a pity it is that a wider perspective on each other’s lives so often has to await death, or perhaps, even worse, is guarded in secret forever. For when shame is removed, what inevitably remains is love. How can we not be in love, when we see  each other face to face, in all our noble fragility?

At Janet’s funeral, I was able to take in the translucent beauty of our flawed humanity. This vision that  I struggle to hold onto as a mother, a spouse, a friend, a writer, and a leader of authentic ritual, flooded the sanctuary that morning.  I knew exactly why I had been drawn there.

 

 

 

 

Nemo and the Law of the Land

Nemo has been weighing on me lately. He spent many a night camped out in our living room during our younger son’s tumultuous teen-age years. We often had to step over several long-legged boy-bodies to get to the kitchen.

I once said to him, “I will always love you, Nemo.” My words served as a warm-up for a gentle confrontation, after a visiting friend of mine discovered he had stolen from her purse.

I do still love Nemo, though he and our son have mostly gone their separate ways. I associate him with the distress of those years, for us, for him.  I recall the gathering in the hospital room after his mother’s sudden death, a death that he’d witnessed while alone at her bedside. My husband and I lingered there with his relatives that evening, hoping to be of service, strangers in a scene awash with horror and old family tensions. A few days later, we were the only white people at the funeral. Nemo hugged us, awkward and restless.

I offered to drive Nemo and his little brother Nick to weekly meetings at Fernside Center for Grieving Children. But their twenty-one-year-old sister, who had been granted custody, declined my offer. By that time we had made the most difficult decision of our lives, sending our own struggling son to a boy’s ranch in Arizona. I found myself missing the thump of the basketball in the backyard, the broad smiles and consistently respectful “Yes, Ma’am” of our son’s African-American friends. Our son, bi-racial and adopted, had always stood with a foot in two worlds. His friends were constantly shocked and mystified by his rantings toward us, his parents, and wondering why we didn’t give him a whupping.

Now, our son, who has indeed followed a convoluted path toward wisdom and maturity,  shakes his head in sorrow for his old friend.  He tells us that Nemo, age twenty-four, is “completely screwed.” He has a felony conviction.

And I wonder if in another, more compassionate society, Nemo would be so hopelessly screwed?  The American Bar Association has listed over 40,000 collateral consequences for those who have been incarcerated. An eternal nightmare of roadblocks.

My heart wanders back toward what might have been. Suppose after his mother’s death Nemo  had been surrounded by a strong, nurturing community? Supposing the courts had placed him in a diversion program, and given him the therapy and wise male mentoring he so needed, instead of throwing him into jail and issuing a death sentence for any hopes he might possibly muster?

But these questions sound to my ears like platitudes. They barely touch my anguish with a hard-ass universe and its most potent symbol, the law.  My distress with the law is old and deep and core to who I am, though I don’t know exactly why, since my own mistakes never warranted its iron hand.

A friend recently reminded me that the law is necessary for human survival, that what’s wrong is that it’s totally corrupted in our country.   But watching how the law routinely destroys young lives in the name of setting them straight,  I can’t help judging that it is just too blunt an instrument to be used on human beings.

It’s not just a matter of rendering our criminal justice system more equitable.  I have two sons, one white, one black. Would I have wanted them to have been treated equally before the law?  No, because if my white son had been slammed with the same zero-tolerance for his foolishness as my black son, he would have suffered just as much, and what purpose does it serve the universe to multiply arbitrary suffering even two-fold?

When I read about people of means getting away with token sentences  because of their clever lawyers, I am not particularly enraged.  Why would I want one more person thrown into our archaic prison system, to waste endless months or years in a soul-numbing echo chamber of loneliness and unproductivity, and then to emerge forever stigmatized?  I cannot think of a single human being  (even politicians) for whom we could not do better.

My husband and I hired lawyers (whether they were clever or not, I can’t say) for both our sons when they got in trouble.  This accorded with my white privilege, inherited from my colonialist ancestors and their slave-holding progeny, who helped shape our “liberty and justice for all.”  Without my sense of entitlement it wouldn’t even have crossed my mind to hire clever lawyers or to rescue my younger son with expensive equine therapy.

No, I don’t begrudge individuals their ability to temper the law.  But what enrages me is the near-inevitability of young black men getting slammed by smug white authority figures, mindlessly, heartlessly, visionlessly invoking the institution of the law, as if it is more absolute than God, as if we should worship at its very feet.

I am not impressed by this primitive institution we all take for granted.  Its favorite form of penance, incarceration, would be laughable for its sheer wastefulness if it weren’t so unspeakably tragic.

In my experience karma is plenty effective in teaching us our painful lessons. “Logical and natural consequences” are built into the order of things. Human law, on the other hand, seems to be filled with contradictions that may well be inherent, and thus unfixable.

We can’t really have it both ways:  law that is fair and just and treats everybody the same, whether they are “one of us” or “other;” and law that allows for human error, family trauma, and young men’s yet-to-be-developed frontal lobes. The first is heartless, the second bound to be inequitable.  Misplaced flexibility leads to bias, good old boys’ clubs, tribal loyalties. Law with no flexibility is just cruel, unless we change the time-honored paradigm itself.

In a new paradigm, law  would finally lay to rest its archaic fixation on punishment, admitting that it is an ineffectual tool for building safe and healthy societies. It would confess its sin of paying lip-service to rehabilitation. It would stop worshiping at the feet of a blindfolded ideal that it never had any intention of creating.

Anyway, if the law wears a blindfold, it can’t see into the human heart. Then nobody wins, not my white son, not my black son, and certainly not Nemo, who, so far, has never stood a chance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers Conferences and Other Scary Things

I’m sure all adults could make a long list of constructive life experiences they avoid out of fear. When I was growing up, I was often coaxed into doing brave things for my own good. I gradually internalized the habit of pushing through my fears. But as an adult I also claimed the right to give myself plenty of slack, and to develop effective rationalizations. It has always been painful to admit that I am just plain “chicken” when faced with the call to grow.

I have learned to trust, though, that timing is everything. It is an act of maturity to resist the pressure, either internal or external, to do what my soul is not ready to do. When I wait, sometimes eons, for the ever-patient but irresistible nudges of Spirit, I always am greeted by joy.

The idea of attending a writers conference has sparked fear in me for quite a while. Although I started identifying myself as a writer decades ago, and publishing a book was hardly a passing fancy, I shuddered at the idea of schmoozing with other writers, drink in hand, or sitting down with some heartless critic who would tear my vulnerable, deeply personal writings to shreds. I preferred intimate, mutually encouraging women’s writing circles, though sometimes they had to be supplemented by thankless tasks like sending out query letters.

Why I changed my mind last fall was because the BookBaby Independent Authors Conference was to take place in Philadelphia, where I had once lived as a graduate student. I was looking for an excuse to visit a dear friend, and wander old haunts. Besides, the conference promised to be non-threatening.  There was to be no touting of our works to agents, because we were self-publishing and not out to prove anything to the Powers that Be.

I nonetheless so dreaded the opening networking event that I fled that downtown bar within three minutes flat. I suspected we would be swapping business cards more out of a desire to appear interested in others’ writings than out of any genuine excitement. And I approached a larger networking gathering that first evening similarly jaded.  My social anxiety was in full swing.  I eventually found a side room peopled with a few low-key introverts, sitting quietly at little tables. This suited me better, somewhat like tip-toeing down the steps into a cold swimming pool. They actually proved rather friendly.

The next morning I strode down the nine blocks from my little Airbnb studio couch in Chinatown quite determined to learn what there was to learn at this conference. After all, I had paid my money, and flown hundreds of miles.

As it turned out, there was a lot to learn. I hadn’t known this — or had I? I knew my efforts at marketing my book, published three years earlier, had been pathetically inadequate.  And I knew there were things an author was asked to do that were immensely time-consuming, or bordered on bragging (horrors!), or that might suck me up eternally into cyber-space. I also “knew” that publishing a memoir is a disheartening experience, and that typical yearly book sales in the single digits are one of the world’s best-kept secrets, second only (in my mind) to the agonies of childbirth.

I could easily have heard the whole series of presenters through this gloomy filter. Their focus on the endless demands of marketing one’s book properly (it seemed I had done everything wrong) could easily have taken me right down the path into a clinical depression.

Yet instead of being overwhelmed, I was inspired.  The difference lay in the fact that my soul been prepared for this moment. Two weeks prior, I had attended a family constellation workshop. There I had explored the origins of my penchant for self-judgment, which had reached a fever pitch in the publication of my memoir, and was paralyzing my writing.  I came to perceive my fear of “putting myself out there” in a new light, and allowed this new awareness to settle into my nervous system.

I arrived purposely in Philadelphia two days early, and became entranced again with the city where I had lived over forty years ago, in the throes of my first love, a year when my heart had been flung wide open, crushed, and strengthened. I walked for miles, identifying with my younger self, loving her, feeling her energy vibrating through me, surprisingly unafraid even when quite lost on dubious streets.  I also spent a day with a soul-sister from that era, with whom I had shared life and deep suffering. So I was ripe for this writers conference. I just didn’t know it.

What I learned at the conference was that I am not just someone who happens to have written a book, but that my identity as a writer is core to who I am and what I can offer the world. My memoir, Ollie Ollie In Come Free, is the first in a series of such offerings. “I am a string in the concert of God’s joy,” the mystic Jacob Boehme once wrote. This was the message I was ready to receive.

I came to realize that marketing goals such as “defining one’s brand” can either remain hollow, contrived, and commercially driven jargon, or they can help to name what is in fact sacred to me, my unique mission or calling. I could choose to keep myself “pure” instead of wasting my time marketing, or I could enjoy whole-heartedly sharing my passion by noticing what enlivens me, and leaving the rest aside.

These revelations were both fresh and very familiar.  They were entirely in keeping with the way I have always sought to live my life, not tangled up in others’ urgent to-do lists, but listening well to the inspiration of each moment, trusting it.

Mystery at Rehoboth Beach

Wendy Dunning/ WD Design Works

A tiny black-and-white photo showed up shortly after Thanksgiving  among my treasures. On the back of it my mother had jotted, “Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: Aug. 56,” Someone had later taken scissors to the snapshot, cropping out the magical expanses of sand. I entrusted this dreamy image to an artist. She transformed it into a new cover for my 2014 memoir Ollie Ollie In Come Free and for the audiobook I have just lovingly recorded during the sixty-fifth year of my life.

I do keep wondering what is in the metal washtub.  Peggy and Paul are enthralled, and their swishing of its contents is quite purposeful. Paul’s smile speaks of utter delight in the task at hand, and Peggy, her arm casually entwined with his, is intently following his lead. My best guess is that there are some crabs in there:  I have never forgotten being pinched by a crab that week when a friendly stranger let us come close to a similar tub teeming with these irresistibly weird creatures. In a moment of bravery, I’d reached my hand out and before I know it I was wailing.

But that trauma must have come later.  In this innocent scene I am momentarily distracted by the person holding the camera. My left hand is in much too far;  if there are truly crabs in the tub I should be paying better attention.  Betsy has already lost interest, and is absorbed by the toddler task of mixing her own special potion.

The sun is soaking our skin. The breeze is playing havoc with Betsy’s hair, though mine is confined, maybe in a small, stubby braid. My mother’s attempt to keep my long bangs out of my eyes has proven useless.

We are all radiant. Paul is the oldest now; it has been eight months since Mary-Louise died, a few days after my third birthday, a few days before Christmas.  Who is the grown-up with the camera?  Someone bent on forgetting, no doubt. Probably our sweet dad.

We kids move as one, our touch, our scent, our voices, our body language infinitely familiar. I wonder at our belief in our completeness, and how our cataclysmic family loss seeks no expression.  Like a jelly-fish, we have closed in around our older sister’s absence.  You would never know she haunts us. We don’t know it ourselves.

I, the adult Anne, have been tugged into the photo as if by some Mary Poppins magic. Immersed in its sunny energy, I marvel at the miracle of our resilience, yes, the resilience adults used to count on to minimalize children’s suffering. Yet some strong and unmistakable force is slogging through our happiness:  the yearning of our young bodies for what has been lost.

We are, after all, a wriggly litter of puppies, forever tussling, nipping and nuzzling, and not so long ago one of us has been pried off the heap. Within two-and-a-half years, Paul too will be torn from our midst, taking with him his sparkly wonderment at myriad adventures on this side of the veil.

In our big family babies will continue to be born. The ones not in this photo. The ones who will never sit playing on this beach. Peggy, Betsy and I will completely forget we ever lived this happy day, crouching together around a beat-up washtub.

In our family nowadays we speak of those who remember nothing, and those who remember too much, but we might well ask:  which family is being remembered, and which is being forgotten? The “we” kept shifting through our early years like the sand on the distant dunes.

Peggy would try earnestly after Paul’s death to be the oldest, but she could never succeed. I would wonder all my life why I felt a bit young and useless within the family,  even though I had moved to a prestigious spot near the top of the heap. I would forget that I was  the fifth kid in our family. Before any of us in this photo were born, there was a beautiful blond toddler, Vic, who was our only real oldest.

Those who sat on this beach once upon a time breathed each other’s air… and then we didn’t. But the cells of our small bodies never forgot.  And so it has always been for so many families, the comings and the goings, the births and the deaths. There is a temptation to say it doesn’t matter, since it was ever thus in human history.

But we as a race are all slowly learning that it all matters, every moment when children are torn from one another, children from parents and parents from children. With the explosion of knowledge about trauma and ACE studies, we can no longer wish away the effects on children of our own doing: time-honored institutions like war, incarceration, forced flights from home and country. We know now that children pay a lasting price for the heartless systemic choices we’ve always taken for granted. And they all still scramble valiantly to fill in the empty spaces that can’t be filled.

I originally wrote Ollie Ollie In Come Free:  A Memoir of Swallowed Time, as a way to honor what needed to be honored, in my own childhood, and in other children’s lives as well. In recording my memoir as an audiobook, I further reawakened the sounds of my sisters’ teasing, my parents’ edicts, my teachers’ scoldings, my own youthful musings.  Voices that have either fallen silent in death, or grown old as children’s voices always do when we are granted the privilege of a long life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?