First of all, I am so touched when people share heartfelt comments on what I think of as my “therapy” posts—I know they are sort of out of character with the rest of my snarky little vegan/atheist/cooking blog, but they are really important and useful to me, so thanks for putting up with them.
I was just in the shower (am I the only one who feels that the only time I really use my brain to its fullest capacity is when warm water is lubricating it? Oy, yes, I am a pisces!) and had a little realization about last night’s post:
The corollary to the joys of self-awareness and the necessity of living in one’s head I described yesterday is my mother, a woman who lives so deeply in her head that she can’t get out of it enough to use a can opener, make a left turn, or understand the importance of paying her bills on time.
I deeply adore my mother—she is endlessly fascinating and strange, and, as I said in a toast at dinner the other night with her and my sweetheart, they are the only people in the entire world I love with my entire heart—but a mean husband or the 1960s or an overly sheltered, pampered childhood or maybe just some quirk of DNA caused her to enter her own little internal, warm, cozy world one day, and she has never really come out.
I see it in her eyes all the time—a perpetual faraway, glassy-eyed look. My mother walks into signs, constantly takes the wrong exit off the highway because she drives straight no matter what (so if the road turns left, she often continues going straight ahead and ends up in a McDonalds parking lot or something, completely bewildered as to how she got there). I describe my mother to others as “an intellectual,” and that’s almost right. The world of words is, for sure, a home for her. However, like many people who are uncomfortable with other humans, the animal world is where she is most comfortable. Her love of animals is intuitive, mysterious, and beautiful. But I’m not an animal, and as soon as I began to walk and talk and have my own opinions, I think it’s safe to say I started to intimidate her, as most people do. These days I just make her slightly nervous, and she clutches at me like a child. My mother’s lack of attention to the real world has had tragic consequences in my life, but I try not to hold it against her. I try to take deep breaths when I catch her looking at me helplessly, waiting for me to patiently guide her back into reality.
Somehow money flows like water through her hands, though she never shops, rarely goes out to dinner, and owns very little. In high school I used to balance her checkbook for her, and she was always amazed at how I “found money” simply by paying attention to where it went. Various misguided fiscal decisions had left my parents’ credit in tatters (a lesson that has been useful in my adult life: when you buy a house, you need to pay the mortgage payments on it. You can’t just move out when you get tired of it and call it a day.), and when I was sixteen and got a job walking dogs at a vet’s office, I opened a checking account. My mother would come to me when she needed to pay for something with a check, since her credit situation didn’t allow her to have a checking account. Sometimes she paid me for the check I wrote for her, sometimes she forgot.
Let’s be clear about this: she really did forget. She didn’t “forget.” Living with an abusive husband gave her the survivor’s ability to completely dispose of any bits of unpleasant information that might impede her ability to continue surviving. Your sixteen-year-old daughter is paying the electricity bills with her $5 an hour job? If I told her this today, she would have absolutely no memory of it, and I understand that. It’s deeply OK.
What was less OK was that when I went away to college I gave her my coveted checkbook because she really could not have survived without it. I took my little bit of savings out and moved all the way across the country, and she wrote dozens of checks while ignoring the customary practice of first putting money in the account. I was eighteen years old and had such ruined credit that the only way I could cash my paychecks from my college jobs was to sign them over to my sweetheart.
In seven years my credit was OK again, and it took about that time for the sting of this betrayal to stop hurting. It sounds like I’m making excuses for her, but I know that she didn’t mean it. She has very little comprehension that things like this really fuck up people’s lives.
I haven’t spoken to my father in ten or so years, and I will be happy when he dies. I love my mother wildly and deeply and see her every chance I get. My father was cruel. My mother’s only crime was being stuck in her head to such an extent that she didn’t notice the world crumbling around her.
So, Dustin, when I got out of the shower and read your lovely and fascinating comment about your grandmother, it was just what I had been thinking about: how can we learn from the people around us in order to not make their mistakes? Yesterday I was in love with my precious moment of self-awareness, but a healthy internal world has to be balanced with an awareness of the world around you.
Dustin, I loved this line of yours: “…human beings can remain kind, positive and hopeful, and while it might be the work of an entire lifetime, it’s not just our destiny, it’s our responsibility–to our self and others.” Yes. I also disdain the New Agey touchy-feely world, but this isn’t that, it is a good, solid, basic truth that’s good to keep remembering.
That college I escaped to when I was eighteen had a motto I never really thought about until recently: meliora. “Always better.” I’m not the type to wax poetic about college or nostalgically wear a horrid college logo sweater, but often that word comes to me when I’m trying hard to transcend something unpleasant I see in myself. I feel lucky to have taken on the work of balancing my internal world with the external world I so often have problems with.
It’s hard work, for sure. But I think I’m for it. I think you are too.