There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.




True Story

Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.

Would that this were true.

I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.

Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.

“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”

“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)

“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)

I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.

I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.

Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:

i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now:  That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.

Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.

Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.

A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.

It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.

There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not?  How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:

I am a writer.

No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one:  the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.

It is my life’s work, loving this way.

I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.

And I want to live.

Photo courtesy of Kate.