Those of you who already know me have most likely heard the sorrowful story of my mom’s early years (abusive, alcoholic father & corresponding Dysfunctional Family; frequent, violent, dead-of-night moves one step ahead of the debt collectors; inadequate nutrition or education; etcetera etcetera etcetera). Her response to that childhood was to become an intellectual woman with bucketfuls of discipline – enough to keep her conscious mind free of memories of molestation for fifty-plus years. This level of control also rendered her frequently unable to respond appropriately to my emotional needs.
As I tend to be on the “delicate flower”
end of the emotional spectrum, it took me ‘til I was about thirty-five to see my way clear to peace with my mother’s legacy (complicated by her death when I was 31), and ten years since then to pick out the bits of my Self from the rubble (thanks to the engineer husband and some remarkably sane and forgiving friends. And those therapists and antidepressants and Julia Cameron I referred to in the first post!).
A big part of the rubble- sieving occurred when I became a parent myself and witnessed, to my horror, my (unintentional) mistakes flowing forth freely and profusely every day I interacted with my kids. I witness evidence of those errors every time my older son yells at his brother for a minor infraction, or my younger son storms out of the room in frustration (yep, we are an intense household. Nuclear power plants got nothing on us when we really get going).
My errors have slowed to a (steady) trickle now that I’m not wiping butts and supplying milk 24-7 for small, irrational humans (observed a friend: “watching three year olds play is liking watching tiny inhabitants of an insane asylum.”) But. Mistakes were made and apparently will continue to be made into the foreseeable future. Forgiveness all ‘round is in order.
Now, my mom’s intellectual rigor was not in sync with my uhm, flowery nature. But! One thing she told me has changed my life, and perhaps the world, if I may be so bold.
When I was a shy fifth grader with wretchedly frizzy hair (during the Farrah
Fawcett era!) struggling in math, she said, “Lesley, if you have a question, ask it. Someone else probably has the same question and will be glad you did.”
I have no idea if I asked the multiplication question that troubled me then, but her words echoed in my head during discussions at college (Earlham College, can’t sing its praises loudly enough). I s l o w l y gained confidence in asking the questions in my heart and head, the ones that others weren’t voicing. When I was thirtyish, my confidence had grown to the point that I inquired of The Powers That Be in the local land use planning community if anyone ever considered conserving land rather than developing it. The answer (nope) led me to ask if anyone else was horrified by this response. Yes, others were aghast — and we organized ourselves and founded the New River Land Trust. Acres protected with Conservation Easements since then: thirty-three thousand! My mom taught me how to change the world!
So. The point today is … amidst all the crap our literal and figurative “mothers” visit upon us, there are plenty enough precious stones. Whatever your art is, whatever question you wrestle with through intentional practice: Claim it. Ask it. Ain’t none of us mind-readers and the only way we’re gonna figure out our next steps forward — individually and collectively — is if we speak up. If shy or uncertain, practice in your diary first. When you’re ready to utter it aloud, listen to the answers. Extend forgiveness to yourself and others when you fail to be honest, or clear, or whatever else your personal failing is; or when others fail to listen carefully.
Ah. Let’s all bask in the light of our higher selves for a moment.
OK. Lovely words. Putting them into action? What exactly does that look like? No, no, don’t tell me, I’m too busy. Right?
Right. I’m too busy too.
Here’s what unstuck me: (years ago) I had an odd sensation in my abdomen. I described it to my physician as similar to when a baby does backflips during the seventh month of pregnancy, before said baby becomes too large for anyone to be comfortable. The doctor replied: I’m scheduling a CAT scan for you. Tomorrow.
Turned out there was nothing wrong with me, no ominous lumps or bumps. But the first, and I do mean the FIRST thing that flew through my head when he responded was: dammit, I haven’t finished my short stories.
Not, I haven’t published my stories, but I haven’t finished my stories. I was afire! I read books about how to get organized for writing, I got organized, I practiced writing with a vengeance. Still haven’t gotten published … but I’m a lot closer to finishing my stories.
Big Lesson distilled into soundbite: It takes habit. Habits are small, daily manifestations of our intentions. Most of us manage some form of hygiene every day, right? We brush our teeth, wash our face, take a shower. Some of us even manage a little fancy sumpin’-sumpin on a regular basis: a spritz of perfume, earrings to match our pants, splattered though they may become with garden dirt and little-kid snot by day’s end.
Creative work, be it ever so small, is just as important to our health as clean teeth. Seriously! Who doesn’t have fifteen minutes to read a bit of a book, or write 500 words, or sketch an idea for a painting? Again, seriously! We allow our time be nibbled away by nonessentials, because it is easy, because it provides instant gratification (“I won the third level of Angry Birds!”). We suppress the certain knowledge that there is one, exactly one, conclusion to all our stories. But most of us have a little sumpin’-sumpin’ we hope to have done before our books’ last pages.
I realize this observation is little more than a variation on the “bucket list,” or the “wear the fancy dress” essay that makes the rounds on the internet every couple of years. Well, there’s a reason so many of us are probably familiar with those references: they’re RIGHT.
Get whatever list-making tools you need, paper and pencil, iPad, cell phone, doesn’t matter. Make your list! Apply some of my mother’s intellectual rigor to the habits of daily life. You will change the world.
Comin’ up: Reflections on the double-edged sword of habitual creativity for its own sake, and that required for parenting. Plus resources that have helped me sustain the habit of “intellectual rigor” required for the long haul. This will include my opinion of chocolate.