Tag Archives: forgiveness

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day…

To all of you who have birthed and raised a child whether alone or with a partner, to those of you with stretch marks and bellies that will never be as firm no matter what exercises you do, whose sleep patterns and priorities are forever changed; thank you.

Every year, I think of my mother, who had no true memory of her own mother. She told me once that she tried all her young life to remember her. Robocop, the movie, has a scene when the cop-made-Robocop- returns to his former family’s home. He says “I don’t remember them, but I feel them.” When I told my mother about that scene she waited a moment, her eyes filling with tears and she said, “Yes, it was like that.”

In my fifties I began to know her as a person. She wasn’t a good mother. Not by today’s standards, not by anyone’s standards. She did nothing (I thought) to protect us from my father, the kind of predator we read about every day but knew nothing about 50 years ago. She didn’t encourage us to go to college; she clung tenaciously and foolishly to religion as the answer to all life’s problems.

As an adult, I realized life threw more at us than we could usually process at once. Think about it. Most of us figure things out after the fact. Some of us are lucky, and can use what we learn to make progress in our lives. Some of us aren’t so lucky and we learn far too late to avoid the pain.

My mother was a gentle soul. She was not prepared for my father, or the twenty years of pregnancies. She was timid, and she feared my father and society in general. She feared being laughed at, being ostracized, being left out. She grew up a tenant farmer’s daughter who never had the stability and security most of us take for granted. She lost her siblings and her mother before she was old enough to understand what she was losing. In school, she was bright, but it wasn’t enough. Being smart is never enough for truly poor people. Maybe you get lucky and some rich person takes you on as their project, but it didn’t happen for my mother. It didn’t happen for me or my siblings.

We grew up with a mother who loved us, but when my father’s figure darkened the doorway, she was reduced to a fearful child herself. We did the best we could and some of us grew into pretty responsible adults. Some didn’t. Most didn’t, actually.

For me, my mother became a human being to me in the last few years of her life. I forgave her all the failings she had accumulated in my list of “what I didn’t get.” In the end, she also forgave me for the snotty way I treated her on so many occasions. I loved her more, before she died, than I ever did growing up. I was in my fifties then and had learned none of us makes all the right decisions. None of us is the perfect mother, wife, partner, employee, or person. I’m still trying to forgive myself.

Every year, on Mother’s Day, I think about my mother’s soft voice, about the hundreds of things she did right, about all the wonderful gifts she gave me. Instead of all the ways she failed me-and there are many-I remind myself that she did the best she could with the few, and limited, tools she had. I remind myself that no one does it all right. She gave me a few gifts-my love of reading, writing, gardening, animals and life in general-that make my life joyful and rich.

Her smile warmed us when we bounced in from school. She laughed at our silly childhood jokes, hugged us at night and I never once felt my mother didn’t love me. Even when my father was making my life miserable, he was making hers miserable, too. I saw her as trapped when I should have seen her as a savior, yes, but never did I see her as loveless.

I wish, with all my heart, I could have helped her before she died. I wish, with all my heart, I could have made her understand that I loved her, that we all loved her, no matter what. I think she carried the guilt of our childhood with her right up to the minute she died, in pain, from a perforated intestine.

I know my mother is dead. I don’t think she’s “up there” watching down on us…or any of that stuff. I think she’s dead, so there will never be a chance for me to thank her for anything, ever again. There won’t be a chance for me to say anything to her, ever again.

What I can do is what people always do on holidays like this. Tell people who do have mothers to appreciate them, whatever their faults. Oh yes, whatever their faults. This is a huge thing I’m saying here. It took me most of my life to appreciate my mother. She allowed my father to abuse his children. And he abused us in every possible situation. You’ve heard of it, he did it.

And I hated her for years. Yes, I did. My quiet, timid mother. And she knew it. She took my sarcastic remarks, my snotty comments, like the beatings she once took from my father. I was in my fifties-did I mention that?-before I even began to understand her life.

So if you’re having a tough time with your Mom, acknowledge it. Own it. Then get over it. Look at your responsibility for yourself. She didn’t love you enough? Maybe she didn’t. So love yourself enough. She made you pull tricks for her boyfriends? OK, then don’t keep her in your life. Get counseling. Stay away from men-for as long as it takes to build your own self respect. Thank your mother for giving you life, for a chance to live, but don’t expect her to become someone she isn’t. She won’t. Breathe in the air around you, experience life and keep moving forward.

Every year on Mother’s Day I think about Mama, and the hard, mostly sad life she led. I think of her trying to find joy in the birth of her children in spite of the fact that she wasn’t sure how she would feed them. I remember her showing me how to make biscuits and meat loaf and tea. I remember her making me let the turtle go, “He lives in the woods, Kathy, he won’t be happy in a box.” I remember her words, profound even now, that taught me empathy: “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”

After everything is totaled up, she gave me more than she deprived me of, and I am grateful. If she were here now, I would drive the five hours to the shitty little town where I grew up and I’d hug her and tell her I love her. I’d sit with her and we’d talk about whatever she wanted to talk about. Or not. I’d see her graying, thinning, hair and the lines beginning to deepen along her face. I’d look at the skin on her hands and remember how they stroked my face when I was sick and smacked my butt when I sassed her.
None of us is perfect, mothers included. We’re human and we need to remember that, while we can. Forgive while you can, love while you can.

Happy Mother’s Day.

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After the Trail

3 weeks of pain, misery, and trudging long after I wanted to stop because I couldn’t find a place to stop has left me with tendon damage and relief that I finally made myself stop.

I listened to more than a few hikers talk about the incredible amounts of ibuprofen they took every day to keep getting their miles in. Hikers who talked of “open wounds on their heels that shot pain up their legs with every step,” who kept walking because they had to get so many miles in. Is it worth liver damage, blood that may or may not clot properly if they sustain an injury, just to get to Katahdin?

I felt shame, the inevitable sense of failure, until the day I actually stopped walking, standing on feet that could barely hold me up and said “I hate this!” Then, relief. I have lived for years with the sense of panic that I might not make the rent, that my car won’t get me to work and back, that I won’t sell the art I’ve put in shops, that something I do won’t work out as I hope. That same sense of constraint, of being in a type of prison, was with me every step of the trail. I couldn’t stop when I saw something beautiful (oh, I did, sometimes, but not with the usual feeling of awe and satisfaction) or even when I was tired and my feet hurt. I couldn’t tell how far I’d walked and even though I knew how far the next shelter was, I couldn’t tell how far I’d come, how far I had to go. I knew I needed to find a campsite before full dark, with a water source, and I went through long stretches where I couldn’t stop because of terrain. I was carrying about a quarter of my body weight so uphill was slow going. I met every step with a growing sense of panic. Where could I stop if I didn’t make it to the shelter? At the shelter were campsites, water, and the safety of people, even though I wasn’t interested in lots of interaction. The point is that I found every day meant nothing more than walking, constantly, for 10 hours to get to the next shelter.

I had trouble eating. Trail food was so far removed from what I normally ate that I really had trouble getting it down and keeping it there. When I’m really tired, and anxious, I can’t eat. If you walk with a pack on rough terrain, uphill and down for hours and hours, you use a lot of energy. I needed to eat and I couldn’t. That added to my panic, and of course, made eating even harder.

Many days I encountered no one until I got close to the shelter. That didn’t bother me, and it gave me hours and hours to think. I realized that my life on the trail was not so different from the life I’ve been leading for years. Getting from one rent day to the next was a lot like making it from one shelter to the next. Wishing I could stop and just look at the sky was a lot like wishing I could spend a day making art instead of going to a job that would leave me exhausted, physically and creatively. I had no more freedom on the trail than I did in real life. Less, in fact. In real life, I did find time to write, to make art, just not nearly enough. On the trail, I couldn’t draw, or write. The longer I went without doing those things that have always sustained me, the harder the days became. I couldn’t sleep, no matter how exhausted, because of the pain in my feet and my heart. I wanted to draw. I wanted to write. I wanted to read.

The trail taught me, in far less than 6 months, that I wanted to return to my life and refine it, enjoy it. I learned that freedom is a concept more than an actual environment, and we often make our own. When I go into the woods to get away from noise and work, I feel refreshed and grateful. I left the trail because I don’t want to spoil my relationship with the woods, with Nature. She doesn’t care, of course, but I do. I will still go hiking, backpacking, and spend the night out when I want to get my fill of stargazing and peace. But I’m not going to do more damage to my feet and ruin my love of the outdoors so I can say I hiked the AT.

I hiked the AT long enough to realize that I can find what I need here. I can’t speak for what other people find, or don’t find, on the AT. What I found is that I need to write, to make art, to eat fresh food and stop walking when I want to stop walking. I found that I want to get back to making my own life again, constraints and all.

I have art bouncing around in my head, stories weaving themselves in and out of random thoughts, and I can’t wait to get busy. My feet still can’t hold me up, but I can write. I can draw. As soon as I can walk, I’ll be back to work. I’m looking forward to rebuilding my life. I have a lot more appreciation for my humble building blocks.

LOVE ME LIKE A CAT

Annie, my rescue cat, is one of a long line of beloved pets that I’ve been appreciating more and more lately. April 1, I’ll take off for the Appalachian Trail, a lifelong dream that I’ve decided can no longer be ignored. In the meantime, I’m trading cooking and cleaning with a friend in exchange for rent so I can save money for my trip. Annie had no say so in that decision. When I decided to go, I started worrying about her. If I waited until she died, that might be another 15 years or more. Should I put off an opportunity that might never come again? It hurt, and I went through days of feeling guilty as I packed my belongings and gave them away.

A good friend, the one who offered to let me live rent-free in exchange for cooking and cleaning, was happy to take in Annie-and keep her when I leave.

The move has been hard. I’m used to being alone, doing things my way and having complete privacy when I get home from work. My niece called to see how I was doing and I ranted for several minutes about my sudden lack of privacy, wondering if the decision I’d made was going to backfire. Finally I apologized and she said, “Hey, it’s a big adjustment, you need to vent. So how’s Annie handling it?”

“Oh, she hid the first day but she’s been exploring the new territory, claiming the little deck in front, and last night she slept with my roommate!”

It dawned on me that Annie was handling things a lot better than I was. Everything in her world changed overnight. She just coped. Instead of whining about the way things used to be, or the way she thought things were going to be, she coped. She looks at every day as a new experience. Like other pets, she lives in the present. She shrugs her shoulders, holds up her little paws and says “hey, it is what it is. We got any more fish?”

Shamed, I started asking my friends about their own pet lessons and have been pleasantly surprised that they all have a story. My friend, Jill, works for Animal Control and volunteers for an animal rescue group. Her own home is filled with purring, barking and parakeet whistles most of the time.

“No matter how cruelly they’ve been treated, most of the time they forgive as soon as you offer them a kind word and a comforting touch. We had a case recently where two little puppies were abandoned. They were tied to a tree in 100 degree heat with no food or water. The owners tied them up while they moved out. Left them. A neighbor saw them, heard them whimpering, and called us. They just huddled together, scared to death, after they’d been fed and watered. All day we petted those little guys, scratched their ears, and by the next day they had the whole staff crooning over them. We didn’t even keep them in the cage; they were running around the offices, playing and tussling like nothing had happened. If that had been me, or you, we’d have hated all people. We’d have to be in therapy. They forgive, they don’t hold grudges. All they really want is love. And kibble.”

Lesson one, I thought. Be present. This is the best day. This is the best meal. This is the best activity. I made myself pay attention to every minute of laundry that day. I noticed every towel, every sock. I appreciated how clean they were. I folded them carefully as I took them out of the dryer, inhaling their fresh scent. Put away gently in their proper place, I realized how little time it actually took and how different the experience was when I wasn’t checking my watch and wishing I were doing something else. Annie, helped, of course. She pounced on wayward socks and took a short nap on the folded towels.

Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer, writes that our pets can teach us more about how to live our lives than we can ever teach them. His book “A Member of the Family” emphasizes how much our pets can teach us about living our lives with joy and purpose. By living in the present, not holding grudges, celebrating each day, giving and receiving love.

We need a purpose, a reason to get up and feel like we’ve accomplished something with each day. Like dogs want to work for their food, so do we. Making art, writing, working at whatever job will pay satisfies me, defines my purpose. I make sure Annie gets to go outside and explore, hunt, do things cats want to do. She needs that. And it’s not so much.

Animals don’t live for revenge or regret, they don’t hold grudges. They deal with an issue when it comes up and then move on. Show your pet kindness and compassion, affection and yes, food, and they will love you with complete abandon. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you open your front door after a discouraging day at work and someone jumps off the couch, purring and rubbing your legs, obviously happy that you exist. Annie and her predecessors always wanted to be petted before I fed them. Always.

And that’s the thing I keep coming back to, in all my research and reading. Love. Annie doesn’t care if my neck sags. She doesn’t care that I don’t make a lot of money, or that my car broke down again or that I’m not the prettiest, smartest, or richest. She loves me exactly the way I am. When I’ve been irritated or tired or depressed she has settled in my lap, purring and kneading. Sometimes she sits up and gently pats my face before she settles down. I love you, she’s saying. No matter what.

I’ve been in therapy-who hasn’t anymore? And it’s because I’ve held grudges, fretted that the past will strangle the future, felt frustrated because I wasn’t this or that. Annie says, you are who you are and that’s great with me. She thinks I’m swell, so maybe I should, too.

My neighbor, a vet, smiled when I asked him about his own menagerie, an assortment of animals left at his clinic.

“The only agenda our pets have is loving us,” he said. “Oh, sure, they want to be fed but even that’s greeted with cheerful enthusiasm.” He laughed and said, “Well, with the exception of some picky cats!”

Now, when I find myself irritated with someone’s careless behavior, or when I’m feeling sorry for myself because my life hasn’t been as successful as I wish it had been, I think of Annie. I think of the pets that loved me before her, of all the animals that share our lives without complaint. And I remind myself to be grateful.

I try to savor every bite of everything I eat. I lift my head during my daily walk and look closely at the colors of the leaves, of the patterns in the clouds. I work through my daily chores and appreciate that I can do them, that I have what I need to live, to work toward my goal of hiking the AT in the spring. Annie has given me unconditional love and that, somehow, frees me to love myself the same way.

It’s empowering, this love. It allows you to love others in a richer, more profound way. Try it. Love yourself the way your pets love you, and watch it keep flowing from your pets to you to those around you.

References:

http://www.cesarsway.com/shop/a-member-of-the-family-hardcover

http://www.helium.com/items/1746480-lessons-from-pets

http://www.helpguide.org/life/pets.htm

gathering leaves

There is snow on the ground now. Autumn faded weeks ago. The last hike I took during the height of blazing color, I marveled at the colors and shapes of the leaves above me, leaves falling gently around me, leaves carpeting the trail under my feet. I bent and picked up a sugar maple. smiling at the golden color, still tinged with green at the tip. I picked up Japanese maple leaves, tiny, pointed and fiery red. There was yellow- green oak, maroon birch, until I finally had a handful of carefully stacked leaves. I cried silently as I walked to my car. I could still hear my mother’s voice, a hundred years ago it seems now, when I gave her one of my drawings for  mother’s day.

“Oh, I love trees!” she had said. The drawing was a detailed study of three maple trees against some rocks. “I love anything with trees in it,” she said, looking at the drawing and smiling as genuinely as I had ever seen her smile.

I said, “You want some with color? Mama, I can draw any kind of trees you want.” I was suddenly sorry that I had not brought her something magnificent, an oil painting, something other than a pencil drawing.

“Oh, yes! I love fall leaves. Paint me something with trees in the fall! All those colors! I always wanted to go to the mountains in the fall and see those colors, trees as far as you can see, in orange and red and …well, you’re the artist, paint me something like that!”

My mother had never been to the mountains in the fall to see the leaves. We lived in a small North Carolina town; she had been raised less than 12 miles away. She had been to Aiken, SC, the coast (once or twice) and the small towns in between to visit relatives. That was the only reason anyone traveled, to visit relatives. You moved if you had to find work and you traveled to visit relatives. That was the world my mother was raised in.

She had seen pictures of the mountains in fall. I did paint a picture of fall trees at a lake, with the trees mirrored in the water. She gasped and hugged me and hung the picture near where she spent most of her last days, in a chair surrounded by reading material.

Now, as I gathered leaves, I remember how much she had loved them.  I had been gathering leaves every fall since her death without really knowing why I had this compulsion.  I had gathered leaves and made placemats, bookmarks, mounted them in small picture frames, pressed them in books to be useful later.

I thought about her as I stood there holding leaves of brilliant red, gold, green-bronze, and purple…and I remembered her saying once, “Oh, I don’t know what tree it is, but the leaves turn red-gold in the fall.” I laughed because I knew the same thing. I couldn’t remember the names of certain trees, but I knew how they looked in the fall.

Suddenly, I realized my mother had shown me a way into art. She had shown me how to love something I couldn’t name. I didn’t have to have a reason to make art; I just had to do it. The pictures didn’t have to mean anything; they just had to be worth looking at. They should be something you wanted near you.

I love the shape of trees, in all seasons, and I find myself looking for them everywhere I go. They are trimmed, trained, and pushed into line in the city, carefully placed in proximity to houses in the suburbs, planted in neat rows along the interstate…but in the mountains they are wild and messy and completely free. Aflame in the fall, boldly naked in winter, tender during spring and welcoming in the summer. They hold out their leafy branches like arms and whisper with the wind while I’m hiking. Birds live in them, calling to each other and me, when I’m there.

They live out loud here and my mother lives in them. I felt that realization like a hard thump on my back. She loved something she couldn’t even get to. She had been raised in the fields, a tenant farmer’s daughter. There were trees nearby, wild, scrubby pines, and dogwoods near the streams. She had probably always felt trees were a safe and welcoming symbol for a time gone forever. I had never realized that about her until she, too, was gone forever.

She was more complicated than I knew. She wasn’t a good mother; this isn’t an attempt to paint my mother into someone I think other people will like. She failed us, as a mother, and there is no way around that. She failed her children but not because she was selfish, an addict, or any of the most popular reasons for failing your children. She failed because she didn’t know what to do and the few things she tried didn’t work. I have lived long enough, and failed enough, that I am beginning to understand.

She was only 17 when she married my father, who took her away from the little she knew. That’s what abusive people do, they isolate their captives. I understand now that she was no older, emotionally, than her own children. She loved us when she was rocking us, breastfeeding us, changing our diapers, etc. But when Daddy walked into the room-or staggered-she knew only terror and as we grew older, she simply watched in frozen horror when he decided to whip us, bellow and terrorize us, etc. She did what most abused people do; she tried to make us understand that WE had to keep from making Daddy mad. I understood pretty early that it didn’t matter what the hell you did or didn’t do, when the demons got into him and you fell into his line of sight-you were a goner. Hell, we made jokes about it.

For years, I hated her, felt sadness for her, regretted her. Now I’m seeing that she gave me more than I realized. She helped me see with an artist’s eyes. She helped me learn to love the natural world, helped me appreciate it; see that there is a universe out there that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. She helped me see that everything is connected.

I finally realize she was a human being-complicated as human beings are. She wasn’t one thing. She was brilliant about many things and sadly child-like in other ways. She loved me as only she could and I held that against her. If she could have gone to the mountains in the fall, she would have. She couldn’t, but I could and now I live here. This is the first place I have found true meaning in my life, and I thank my mother for leading me here.