Category Archives: and the history thereof

The Christians are Wearing Me Out

Sorry, Coach.  I have tried and tried to come to common ground with my former flock, and time and time again, they have made me regret it.  They get to say whatever they feel:  that God either acts or permits action; that God is Great and is In Charge; that anything not done by God is allowed by God.

They are literally on the topic of personal crime — violence against vulnerable others — and talking about how God allows it.  For Reasons.

And *I* am the bad guy for simply saying that anyone who could stop violence against the vulnerable, and does not stop it, is terrible, horrible, no-good, and definitely not worth worship.  For some reason God gets worshiped despite behavior you would not accept from an antisocial thug.

Many people I love are believers.  I used to be one myself.  When I did believe in God, it cut me *to the bone* to know that my God — the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent — saw what was happening to my early-grade-school-self and did nothing.  I broke up with God over that.  But I am unable and unwilling to break up with my family…despite the fact that they know all this and worship Him anyway.  It’s as if His need to be worshiped is more important than a child’s pain.  In their understanding of the universe, He watched what was happening to me and did nothing.  I do not give two shits what His ineffable rationale might have been; it could not possibly be good enough.

And if it sounds selfish for me to say that:  think, thou, on a neighbor kid…a grandma…your dad, your mom, your favorite person in the world…watching a child get assaulted…and staying glued to the peephole without intervening, without calling for help, without lifting a finger.  Would it not change your view of that person?  If so, why does it not change your view of your God?

And if it does not change your view of that person, why do you think that person’s inaction was okay?  Serious answers only, people.  Trusting that someone had a good enough reason, if you’re an adult, means you have an idea of what that reason might look like.  And if you are going to try to explain how an omnipotent being had to allow a child to get hurt for some reason, you don’t understand what “omnipotent” means.

Life taught me that people get to mistreat me with impunity, so I don’t ask that you explain why bad things happened to me.  Just explain why it happened to the other kids.  Why they deserved it.  Or why you worship someone who believes in harming kids who *don’t* deserve it.

The Cousin I Knew

When I was so young that my parents were still together, but so old that we had already moved out west, I got to meet my mother’s sister’s sons for the first time.  Back east, the cousins on my dad’s side looked like me:  white blonde, with a spattering of tiny freckles.  In summer, we played outside constantly — this was the time before sunscreen, mind you — and we still looked like underdone toast.   My boy cousins there all had buzz cuts or high’n’tights thanks to the triple influence of military, poverty, and the South.

We moved to one of the big square states in the West and my folks enrolled in college.  I went to Head Start and married one of the boys in a single-ring (pop can pull-ring) ceremony behind the colored block bin.  Meanwhile, my folks split up and Mom headed even farther west to live with her mother and stepfather.  Dad caught up and they tried to make a go of it again.  Mom and Dad divorced for the final time close to when my aunt’s marriage ended.  Aunt moved two towns over from us, bringing the two boys she and her ex had adopted off different reservations.  They bracketed me in age, and they were my best and most consistent friends over years of local relocations.

They blew my mind.  Their mom was a college-educated liberal, and it was the 70s.  She let them wear their hair very long, and fought the school to keep it that way to respect their families of origin.  She let them swear, en famille, but not in front of old people or anyone upset by it.  They had a regimented daily chore list, where my single mom and I lived with Grandma, who did everything.  My aunt kept her menstrual cycle noted on the kitchen calendar so they could be aware of her PMS.  It was as unlike my home as you could get.  In childhood we had occasional visits, and I lived for them — I was in a highly rural home with no kid neighbors — but around junior high we ended up in the same school district.

The older cousin was the one I was most like, and I spent a lot of time with him.  He was bright and funny and chubby and always laughing, very outgoing, infinitely curious.  His mother took a close interest in him and helped him in every way.  She got him a job for pocket money, bought him books and study tools, got him music lessons, and made sure he learned about his Native American heritage.  He got straight As in all the hardest classes, played in jazz band competitions.  He became a diehard Christian, and this brought him even more praise and approval.

His brother, two years younger, was the exact opposite.  Slim, quiet, prone to anger (but always eager to laugh) with a short attention span and no interest in school or books or learning. He was often left out of conversations between his mother and brother, even asked to leave, because he was not able to talk about (or interested in) the subject at hand.  He fought for his mother’s regard, but he didn’t try to imitate his brother to get it. He loved sports, but not school sports; he was a pool lifeguard in summer and a ski lifeguard in winter.  He made good money once, posing for a painting, but that was the extent of his modeling career.  He was unambitious, and always hungry for attention.

I trailed my older cousin like a comet, joining his group of friends whenever I could.  They were intelligent, witty, fun, and came from good families.  Aunt even let me come to one of their sleepovers (although she required me to sleep in her bed alongside her, which was not my preference but more than fair.)  I followed them, and I had great conversations with my older cousin, but we weren’t close in an emotional sense.  We could talk about very emotional things, but we didn’t feel them together.

My time with my younger cousin was again the opposite.  He would drop by and say, “Hey, Cuz, how’s it going?” and we’d make pointless small talk.  Sometimes he would tease me for being soft (I was anorexic at the time, but had no muscle tone) and flex his muscles at me, or he would ask if any of my friends would go out with him.  Very brotherly.  I would roll my eyes and shrug it off and see ya next week.  But on a regular basis, he would show up and say, “Here, sit down, just listen to this, tell me what you think.”

I remember sitting next to him, both of us still and quiet, listening to Robert Plant singing, “Sea of Love,” just blown away.  He came over once and asked me to cut his hair, which thrilled me — he was wearing his hair short and this was a very trusting request.  I gingerly cut his hair, a few strands at a time, while we listened to Robert Palmer sing, “Lonely Tonight,” a song that still runs through my head.  He gave me his Julie Brown tape, and “Goddess in Progress” became anthematic to me.  He would show up when my boyfriends came over, trying to top dog them a little, before giving me a hug and going off to his own fun.

One time he brought me a rose.  Just a single bouquet rose, not a long-stem — a dollar a pop at my favorite florist, with a little ming fern and a stem of babies’ breath.  It was out of the blue, and I was touched.  I fully understood that it was not a big investment, and that it may have been purchased for a date who stood him up.  And he knew that it would not be a sweeping moment for me, since I had been dating a boy for months who brought me a dozen roses every weekend and the dead bouquets were strung to dry all over the house.  This only happened one time, but it was typical: he would make a gesture, and I would be receptive.  He never had a steady girlfriend, and he had been progressively more alienated from his mother.  It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I might have been the only supportive female in his life, the only girl he was close to.

When I went off to college, he started having problem with alcohol and the law.  One summer, when I was still skinny and blond and on a break from my school beau, I ran into him while out cruising on Saturday night.  I had been flirting with a hot boy who was a year behind me, still in high school and chasing me hard.  When my cousin waved and shouted from a passing care, the flirt — who was the son of a very successful local doctor; my grandmother had begged me to date him while I was in school — said, “You know that stinky Indian?”  I stared him straight in the eyes and said, “That ‘stinky Indian’ is my cousin, and I love him very much.”  My tone was icy.  The flirt tried to make up, but didn’t apologize.  I let him squirm for a while and then ditched him.  This was not the first time something like this happened, but it was probably the last.

I went back to school, and cousin’s behavior got worse.  Aunt kicked him out, and my mom let him move into her attic, even gave him the car she originally promised me.  But I came home to find his attic room empty, except for some personal items and a forgotten cassette, which I appropriated and listened to on repeat — the first album by the Violent Femmes.  I finished school, got depressed, struggled to get my life on track, and didn’t come home for years.  I heard from Mom that he went to jail, went to rehab, went into Job Corp.  Mom whispered that he was physically and sexually assaulted while in jail, and suffered permanent harm including hepatitis.

My heart broke for him.  But there was no way to be in touch.  He loved long, pointless, frequent phone conversations, and used to call out of the blue with nothing to say, just hoping for someone to distract and amuse him. I was (am) phone-phobic in the extreme, strongly preferring to write letters — definitely not his strong suit.  We had never had a pattern of rich communication anyway.  But we had that shared feeling of sadness, and struggle, and support whenever we were together.

Years later I came home for older cousin’s wedding.  I knew everything about older cousin, as Aunt’s letters always detailed his latest string of accomplishments, but they never mentioned younger cousin.  It was great to reconnect with him.  He was happy, working regularly, and had been dating a dark, slender beauty who never left his side.  She brought no chaos to his life and handled his bad behavior without drama.  I was distracted by my own crumbling marriage and feelings of failure in life, not to mention the ambivalence of visiting my hometown after years away, but I was happy for him.  Over the next twenty years, I visited very rarely, but visits always involved a family dinner that he would join.  These time-lapse snapshots showed the changes in his life:  the pretty girlfriend became a smiling but haggard wife; they became parents of a darling girl he adored; and then gave her a precious baby brother.

Our lives couldn’t have been more different.  I got a divorce, stayed away, never had kids; he worshiped his children and saw his wife as a real partner even though his nose was always open to the ladies.  Years later, I found the man of my dreams and have been happily monogamous since the day we got together.  Cousin stayed home and became a dutiful son; I remained the prodigal child and designated black sheep.  We both got fat, drank too much, and struggled to keep the family times positive and friendly rather than bitchy and judgy.  He would always leave early (with my mother and sister snorting and huffing and hissing “so he can keep boozing!”) — but he would always give me a long, tight bear hug and say, “Love you, Cuz. You should come home more.  And call me sometime, okay?”

The drinking caught up with him.  And the hep.  I imagine his life of construction work played a role, too, not only in terms of wear and tear, but medication.  Every guy I knew who worked in hard physical ways tore through the NSAIDs like candy.  And let’s not forget the stress.

After a brief period of abdominal illness, great pain, and repeated hospitalizations, he died on the last Thursday of 2016.

I didn’t go home for the funeral, which was yesterday.  I haven’t called his mother or his widow, or written, or sent a card.  Wrong of me, but I can’t bear it.  If we lived in the same town, I could be present.  I could grieve with them and they would know I wasn’t being callous or indifferent.  But I don’t have words.  The connection I had with him was not like that.  It was sitting together, feeling the music, smiling and nodding, and a bear hug at the end.  I can hold it together at work, and I can make small talk with friends, but I cry a lot, and when I least suspect it. I never could have made the trip home.  I never could have left without that hug.

We never minded the long absences.  We were tight.  Nothing ever came between us.  I just can’t think of this as permanent.  It’s just another time apart.

 

 

Quarterly Report: A Compression of Horrible Events

(Or: the Daughter, the Sister, the Aunts, and the Cousin)

Part One:  The Daughter

End of September, my honey gets a call from his hometown:  his second daughter (who stopped speaking to him years ago) is in the hospital.  She was visiting older daughter and had a scary-bad headache, which they diagnosed as a brain aneurysm (later modified to subarachnoid hemorrhage.)  They treated it with medication only (which was good) and kept her inpatient at a superior facility (which was good) but the hopes for recovery were very much not good.  She was unable to complete sentences or thoughts, had impaired motor control, etc., and then we heard nothing.  Older daughter was busy taking care of business, what with insurance and doctors and her sister’s ex in Arizona refusing to take their infant back.  Meanwhile her job, college courses, and care for the three young children she raises on her own made demands of their own.  Can we go home to help?  With what money, to do what?

Of course, her mother — her thieving, abusive, mentally ill, drug addicted, but very loving and codependent mother — was going to hop a flight and come take care of her daughter and her grandchild.  I hated to hear this, since she was the one who knowingly put this child in the hands of molesters and abusers; she was the one who kept this child out of school for years of her young life; she was the one who did meth with the child; she was the one who taught the girl how to be a criminal.  But daughter adores mother and needed her.  Naturally, my already acute frustration with a family that does not know what questions to ask doctors, and phrases things in the  most dramatic, catastrophizing, inaccurate ways (true to their Southern heritage) became staggering.  (Or maybe I’m an asshole for thinking it’s better to ask a doctor about a prognosis than it is to make wild statements about how She’s Going To Be A Vegetable Forever And Ever!)  Part of my frustration was stifled anger, of course.  I never keep things from my husband, and it took a force of will to keep my mouth shut, but his daughter’s condition is one almost always caused by trauma recent or remote — exactly the kinds of trauma she experienced in the care of Evil Mom, during their years off the grid and out of his reach.  The idea of Evil Mom showing up as nursing angel made my chest tight with rage.  But the news dried up.  We heard nothing.  Perhaps she did save the day.  Bless her if she did, right?

Then the “hearing nothing” phase turned into “mother never showed.”  Second daughter checked out AMA, went home to her local boyfriend, wrote a note, smiled and laughed, kissed him goodnight, and took all of her pills.  Back in the ER, back inpatient, heart breaking.  Idiot boyfriend didn’t catch on for a long time and then called sister instead of 911.  Second daughter, in a coma.  Good brain activity, but completely unresponsive.  Yours truly, furious that no social work / case management had occurred.  And again the news dried up.

After waiting patiently, we begged for more news.  Oh, she’s fine.  I think.  Constitution of a meat axe, that girl.  She woke up.  Evil Mom arrived, checked daughter out AMA (again), and took her back to their hometown in Arizona, meth capital of the west.  The end, no moral.

Part Two:  Intermission:  No Music, One Aunt

So this takes us to mid-late October, a brief respite before the horror show that was the US election.  It’s been covered extensively elsewhere.  I’ll spare you the sick stomach and heartache.  But November was also fraught for me and mine.  More health scares.  The loss of loved ones.  The loss of beloved pets.  Assaults at work.  The failure of a tax measure in my state that will deprive the elderly and the infirm of care and keep their basic needs unmet — not to mention making thousands of working families unemployed.  Brace yourself for homeless and unmedicated children, old people, veterans, mentally ill and developmentally disabled people.  With lots of pressure at work and the prospect of unemployment for me (and still no employment for my spouse), this started a process of negativity, fear, stress, and simply being in shock all the time — still the backdrop for my life, but a fresh hell that began here.

About this time, my mom’s cousin, a dear lady who means a lot to me, had a stroke and went into a nursing home.  She was one of those folks we grow in the northern states:  hardy, brisk, sweet, sarcastic, unemotional, hardworking, loyal, and with a robust joy and determined good nature that kept her ancestors afloat as prairie farmers.  She was a salon owner in the 80s and I owe a voting share of my first burst of confidence to her, for she lovingly cut, colored, and permed me into a state of social elevation.  She gifted me with Camaro Hair.  And now she is tearful, mute, and desperate, because incapacity is what we fear.  She won’t cooperate with PT, engage in activities, or talk to anyone but my mother.

And my mother, in the anti-therapeutic tradition of the northern US, chided her for being weak, chided her for not turning to Jesus with gratitude for her life, chided her for being afraid.  When I asked if anyone was treating her for depression, Mom got angrily defensive, and listed all the many people who showed up to tell her to “snap out of it.”  My pointing out that this is not an effective treatment for depression revealed that my mother believes therapy to be Satanic, that it makes things worse, that it is “the petting of the flesh” and not of God.  I knew she was that way about psychology and long-term, non-problem-focused therapy, but I had taken pains to explain that short-term, goal-oriented treatment is different.  I thought she got it.  Instead, I got an earful of why my new career is occult bullshit.  Not true, but it hurt to hear my mother say it to me, especially after her hearty endorsement of my career change, going back to school, and reshaping my life.

Part Three:  Aunt the Second and Sister the First

The backdrop for this battle:  my sister and mother drew a line in the sand with my local aunt.  This aunt was another saint to me from junior high through college, and the (adoptive) mother of my two cousins, boys who were like brothers to me.  The good son, whom she worships, went to West Point and Harvard, and is a published professor with a published-professor wife who started a foundation, writes books, and is a MacArthur Fellow (winner of the “genius grant”).  But Aunt’s local son worships her — even though he was always a bad boy, dropping out of school, getting arrested for DUIs, etc.  She kicked him out young and wished him luck with his alcohol abuse, but he was her shame, even though he eventually got married and got work and came running whenever she needed a job done.

This aunt has a long and mixed history with my sister.  Their relationship turned weird.  Auntie became domineering, demanding, and insulting; sister became passive, and very resentful of the domination, but did not say anything.  I am not a victim-blamer, but I also know that if you are dancing with someone who keeps stepping on your feet, and you don’t ever utter one goddamned peep, it is not appropriate to stew in silent resentment of this person who is treading on you.  If you feel too much is being asked, it is incumbent on you to say no.  If you feel overused or ill treated, it behooves you to speak up.  It is never okay to mistreat someone, but if you are going along with it, it’s not out of line to assume you just have a funky boundary dynamic that might mean you’re actually really close.

So my sister puts her foot down — but not about her own issues; instead, she insults the aunt by accusing her of worshiping her older son and “trying to force the rest of us to worship him too”.  Oh shit; shots fired.

Remember, this family is diehard backwoods Christian.  Idolatry is a horrible accusation.

Lots of drama, lots of she-said/she-said.  Aunt says, “you’re dead to me”.  Mom says, “if she’s dead, I’m dead.”  Sister huffs and puffs on her high mountain, wondering why her righteous accusation did not result in Aunt modifying her behavior and mending fences — after all, that’s what Sister herself does when Mom pulls that shit on her.  Isn’t that the way the world works?

Sister asks me to talk to Aunt about all this.  I say sure, but what do you want from it?  If you think she’s going to apologize, she’s not, and if you want to reconcile with your abuser (for things really went down that path eventually), I don’t know if that’s a great idea to me but it is up to you.  Sister beats around the bush, but intently.  “I just want her to know how much she’s hurt me, and she won’t talk to me so I can’t tell her myself.”  Okay, but what is the outcome you want?  Are you trying to punish her for hurting you?  Are you trying to demonstrate why her apology would help?  Are you hoping for reconciliation ? “I just want you to tell her.”

This aunt did not speak to me for years.  When Mom and Sister were fighting with Aunt, they used Good Cousin’s standing me up years ago as the example of Why You Shouldn’t Worship Him.  Of course Aunt came to his defense.  But she didn’t ask me for my side, and so she never knew that I didn’t give two hoots about being stood up after the first flush of anger.  Mad at the time?  Sure.  Grudgy?  Heck no.  So I was pissed that Mom and Sis used me as a tool against Aunt, and pissed at Aunt for not finding out from me how I felt.  But this whole non-issue was the excuse for their fight.

Part Four:  The Cousin

When I visited Home last spring, my local cousin pulled me into his truck and begged me to talk to his mom, my aunt, on the phone.  He dialed and held it to my ear.  She was stiff, but I wasn’t, and having some small talk warmed her up a little.  No frost in my tone.  I made some humorous self-deprecating remarks, and asked about good cousin’s family, and she was getting on a roll when she lost her nerve, had to go, bye now.  Cool.  And cousin was shaky with relief — he loves us all and hates for us to be fractured.  I said to his wife later, quietly:  if it weren’t for him, I think this family would just break apart.  She nodded vigorously and said, “Yes.  Yes.  I totally agree.”  Not happily.

Cut to December.  My local cousin was feeling crummy and went to his chiropractor  / naturopath for help.  His wife works for this dude, so they get a discount.  He did some kind of cleanse and had abdominal cramps that took him to the hospital.  They admitted him, drained more than a gallon of fluid from his abdomen, and told him to rest for a few weeks.  His construction job said they would take him back, but they needed the money — one in grammar school and one in diapers, which a part-time office worker can’t support.  But my cousin could not even drive due to confusion and pain.  Rehospitalizations occurred.

The family did not handle this well.  Cold, damp weather aggravates Mom’s rheumatoid, and she won’t take so much as an ibuprofen for it.  She becomes, for want of a better term, mean as catshit.  The pain is crazy-making and she can’t think well, but she is good at being mean and hard to avoid.  She and Aunt are back on speaking terms, but Mom keeps saying shitty, withering things — while Aunt goes into flights of fanciful hope, Mom deals with fear by being snotty and hard-hearted.  Sister goes into full judgment mode, unable to mention Cousin without referencing his addiction, and always in the most harsh and denigrating way, without an iota of compassion, and the joke is on you if you think her Christianity is tainted by any sincerity or kindness.  She is also unable to mention Aunt  without resentful, accusatory butthurt.  Any hint that a very sick person could at least be spoken of without reference to his always showing up at family gatherings with alcohol on his breath were met with the rapid and righteous chorus of “But It’s The TRUTH”, and a litany of why “I’m not going to pretend he’s not an alcoholic just to cater to your bleeding heart liberal bullshit.”

Called Aunt at first hospitalization.  I had been postponing this due to the unclear message from Sister on what she wanted from the conversation, but how often does my younger, stronger cousin go to hospital?  We talked for 45 minutes and it began in a fraught way, but Aunt can’t help but pepper her language with obscure references, and I can’t help but snort and answer back.  There was some of the sweet feeling when someone really gets your little ways and is right there with you.  And we ended by cheering each other up about Cousin, thinking about how soon he would feel better, and this might be what helps him to lasting change, and hey, why not hope?  It was a good call.

Afterward, I was busy thinking about how this could be a good groundwork for a LOT of family reconciliation — that if Aunt trusted me, I would not betray that trust, but I would try to push things back on the rails with her and Sis.  Naturally, this was more of my bleeding heart liberal bullshit.  Sister emailed the next day, cold and cryptic, asking for a good time to call.  Then there was some cold and cryptic questioning.  Apparently Aunt called Mom right away to say we had had such a great talk and “I’m glad at least ONE of your children gets my sense of humor!”  Sigh.

I said Yeah, and?  It was tactless, but that is the beginning of her acknowledging that there is a real gap between you, and there is.  It’s a start.  If you thought that she was going to call in abject humiliation to beg forgiveness, you know that’s not ever going to happen.  And if you thought that my conversation with her was going to be a call out of the blue to heap abuse on a mentally ill 75 year old woman whose younger child was just hospitalized, you know that’s not the way I would do things either.  This was just an opener.  What is the problem?

Sister’s tits were calmed a bit, but she said something that rocked me:  when Mom told her about the call from Auntie, Mom said, “She must have sold you out.”  The fact that my mother would assume that I would do that was a punch in the gut.  I have never and would never do that.  This changed the conversation. Sister didn’t back away from that (of course she didn’t; “But It’s The Truth”) but suggested I talk to Mom.  I said I would need to think about that for a while.

Because the fact is:  I never told my sister that the grandfather she adored, the man who raised her as a father, molested me when I was in grammar school and she was in the crib.  She found out later, and we have discussed it obliquely.  But we have the understanding that her experiences were different from mine, and we both had valid experiences for all they were so different.  I actually referenced this when I said I would talk to Aunt, because I know what it’s like to have no one on your side against a family member who has hurt you.  I said I would have to work up to it, and she accepted that, or at least accepted that she had to wait for me to find the right time.

Part Five:  Code, and Coda

I didn’t have the chance.  Cousin got worse and worse, in and out of the hospital, more and more fluid drained from his abdomen.  My sister did dwell on his alcoholism, but only once acknowledged that he got hepatitis when he was a teenager after being violently sexually assaulted in jail.  My cousin died in the hospital (where my grandmother, my mother, and I all worked) on the 30th of December, 2016.  He’ll get a post of his own.  But the aftermath is here and now.

His wife ploughed into action:  had him cremated, did all the death tasks, arranged for a memorial potluck at her boss’s church, officiated by her boss’s pastor, and attended by her family and the friends and coworkers of her and my cousin.  Mom is too crippled to attend — she couldn’t even see Cousin in the hospital.  Sister might not be welcome — she never got along with the wife.  I can’t go due to work and money and an ice storm.  Even his brother, the Good Cousin, already had a trip planned that he is is attending rather than changing — so even his own brother won’t be there.  And Aunt’s twin sister, like Mom, is crippled by arthritis.  She plans to send wife the money she would have used to travel.

I am just sad.  So fucking sad.  The last time we all came together was for Good Cousin’s wedding, twenty years ago, but we’re all staying home from Local Cousin’s memorial.  I admit that as much as I want cremation for myself, having no burial or interment makes the event uncentered for me; all of our people are in the same cemetery by the park where we used to swim.  I find it right and proper that his widow’s wants are everything right now, and she has arranged things to her taste.  I don’t believe she would be happy to see us, and might have a resentful thrill at our absence more than any hurt for her man.

But my poor Aunt will be alone among strangers at his funeral today.

My heart breaks for her.  But I will say it here, among silent friends:  her adoration of her older boy, with his genius, his talent, and his sweet good humor (now lost to pompous  amour-propre) excluded her younger son, with his raw physicality and disinterest in school.  He was the black sheep.  He spent years trying to gain her adoring regard for himself, and she let him do that with thanks but no love.  When his older brother, my Good Cousin, found the kin that gave him up for adoption, he changed his name to theirs and traveled to see them every year.  That’s fine.  He let Aunt come stay with his family for months every year to provide free childcare.  And she was thrilled to do it for her older son, much as her younger son would get out of bed in the middle of the night for her, and drive to her house from two towns over to do some minor errand  at her whim.

My local cousin never wanted to find the blood relatives who gave him up for adoption.  When the topic would come up, he would look at me with those black sea lion eyes and say, “This is my family, right here.”

My poor cousin.  Martyr to our family’s dysfunction. And his funeral today, the day after the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And I endured her funeral apart from my family, babysitting Aunt, who was making crude jokes and and snide comments in my ear the whole time.  The grandmother I adored was the mother who used to beat her with a broom, and cursed her for a liar when she accused her uncle of raping her.  This same aunt took me in days after the funeral when I had an allergic reaction at Mom’s house and couldn’t breathe.  Mom paid for my urgent care visit and my inhaler, but viciously and persistently insisted that I hated her and hated home SO MUCH that it was giving me a panic attack.

Ladies and gentlemen:  my family.

(da capo)

My dream is that sometime in summertime, we can all come home to celebrate him.  The weather will warm the bones of the old ladies.  My good cousin and his wife will bring their kids to play where my cousins and I played, at the house my great-grandmother built, where my grandmother and mother and I have lived, and Mom lives still.  My aunt and sister will have had time to reconcile, if they are going to, and we can remember my cousin in his natural habitat — in the mountains, at the lake, in the grassy yard where we ran and wrestled.  His widow can come and bring his kids, but she knew a man we didn’t.  This will be for us, and the boy we knew, and the family we used to be.

226.6

I’ve been depressed for a while now. It didn’t seem like depression because it was a process, an extenuation and worsening of the negative side of normal. I would have caught it sooner, I think, if it hadn’t been for my inner Pollyanna and her relentless cheerleading. She works hard to keep me going, but part of her snappy patter is refusing to believe things are That Bad. Well, sometimes they are, and finding the upside of a crummy situation results in continuing the crummy situation rather than saying WHOA, this is fucked up, time to start changing things. It dovetails nicely with the Puritan farmer mentality I grew up with – but unfortunately, both of those are geared to help you ENDURE hard times rather than solve the problem. In short, it helps you put up with shit rather than fix it.

My attempts to get back on track have all failed. This is probably due to not addressing the cause of the problem. Pressuring myself to do better is just adding pressure if there is zero motivation for change. Add shame to the mix. Sometimes I would have a balanced moment and acknowledge that I wasn’t trying to change right now but that I recognized the need to take better care of myself. But most of the time, all I could do was chide myself and hate myself and concoct schemes to jump start my motivation. Unfortunately, false starts and dead ends and restarts get me down – way down. Failure might light a fire under some fannies, but not mine. It drains me of motivation and makes me hate myself more when I try and fail and try again and fail again, despite the well-known quote from Samuel Beckett, as seen in a thousand earnest tattoos.

Over the holidays it got worse – more food, more drink, more escapism. I got fatter, and that made me sad, even though I had applied myself so diligently to those activities that make me fat. After the new year, the depression didn’t get worse, but things happened that made me turn to my recently cultivated Bad Habits™ to cope. Alan Rickman died, David Bowie died. My favorite patient, the person I’ve worked with longest, died, as did another patient a few days later. These things did not help. One of my aunts is still dying, and that’s sad enough without factoring in the effects on her brother and childhood best friend, who happens to be my father. The three-year mark passed since my husband had a job. My own work stress accrued. A new boss started at my work, and the change stressed me. She seems very nice, but there are perhaps a dozen reasons why I can’t stand her. The capper: because I have Teacher’s Pet Syndrome, I need to please her and I can’t seem to, ever (only another Teacher’s Pet will understand how vexing this is.) And then there is the SCA. Stopped playing before Thanksgiving, so no breaks, no socializing, no dressing up, no letting off steam. It’s for the best, given the local crowd, but like work, it’s one more coping tool that’s not working for me, while food and beer and Netflix are.

And then there was the PMS. And the perimenopause. And the hideous problems that come from stuffing myself like a Strasbourg goose: constipation, skin breakouts, lower libido, snoring loud enough to wake the neighbors, hormone changes, headaches, poor sleep, and other effects from clogging my system with excess matter. I have been eating so much that it has overwhelmed my magical machine for processing and filtering and fueling and eliminating. Poor old wagon, overloaded, and trying so hard to keep me going.

My house is dirty. This says more than anything else. And I’m hairy: hairy pits, hairy legs, unpolished toes and fingernails. These are all signs, for those who know me. And Honey knows me better than anyone, but he accepts me wholly and without judgment. If I want hairy legs, he supports me in that. The problem is that I don’t – but I have zero motivation to shave. All I can do is lie here, hating myself, and occasionally wondering what that rustling-leaves sensation is between my calves when I walk. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I realized it was the fluffy leggings I grew myself. I have known gorgeous brunette girls with dark, straight body hair that looks sleek and strong and which lies flat against the legs. Mine is sparse and nearly invisible and sticks straight out every which way. My legs look downy, like a baby bald eagle’s. Now I can laugh, but there was great disappointment in myself when I realized that this was yet another one of the ten thousand things I was neglecting, wrecking, or half-assing.

Sunday was my iron wedding anniversary with my darling man, and this summer will mark 15 years together. All in all, this is delightful, although my pleasure was dampened severely by my feeling more and more certain that I am a worthless sack of shit as a human being. On Sunday I called home to talk to Mom — it had been longer than usual, maybe a lot longer — and after chatting a bit, I asked if she was feeling well because she sounded kind of croaky. Mom said that was a little bit of news: she was done fasting.

DONE FASTING!

Ten years ago January, my grandmother died, after a long and painful deterioration. Her birthday is coming up in a few days, and I always try to be extra supportive of Mom from Jan to March. When Grandma was dying, I had no idea what was happening. Long distance bills were still a thing and I was earning too little to call. And Mom was too busy to talk. She was working with Grandma’s husband in shifts to perform personal care during her final weeks. Round the clock feeding and cleaning and soothing and medicating, and the emotional attrition wore them both down, and out. They would have qualified for respite care if they had put her in a home, but they sacrificed their time and health and well-being to help Grandma die at home. This is everything to me, since I remember my Great-Grandma begging to die at home and her children not allowing it. I like to think they were hoping for a miracle, but she knew, and I am still horrified to think of her dying in a sterile ward instead of in the home she and her brothers built by hand just after World War I.

Mom, in the process of caring for Grandma, neglected herself; and having no time to prepare her own food, relied on nutritional supplements for all those skipped meals. Then Grandma died. Mom still couldn’t eat more than supplements, couldn’t sleep more than an hour at a time. Mom had to put Grandma’s house in order, make all the funeral arrangements, deal with the insurance and banking and paperwork and wills and deeds and titles and taxes. Weeks passed and still no solid food. I came for the funeral and stayed a month – but I had to retreat to my aunt’s house for part of the visit. I don’t know if it was dust or stress or pet dander or constantly being choked up, but I literally could not breathe. I had never had an asthma attack or shortness of breath and it was terrifying.

Mom took this personally and wanted to fight about it all the time. She accused me of everything from giving place to demons to hating her so much that I couldn’t stand to be around her. Every word hurt like hell, but I was too busy gasping for breath to fight or defend. In retrospect I feel it might have been Mom blaming herself for Grandma dying, Mom taking her grieving anger out on me, but I know my gasping scared her and my moving out wounded her and made her feel abandoned all over again. By the time I returned to my own home in February, Mom still hadn’t resumed eating food — she would drink coffee but nothing else hot. No solid food. No broth or real food liquefied, either. The Lord told her not to; the Lord told her to fast. The Lord told her to rely on nothing other than the little jars of nutritional supplements she had been living on since Christmas.

At one point, some months later, my sister called me outside of Mom’s hearing, to talk about the fights they had about it. There were even larger fights in following years. My sister and I spoke with a different aunt about an intervention, even calling the county to do a wellness check. It never came to pass. Eventually we just accepted it.

Last week Mom asked the Lord what to do about this cold that’s been plaguing her, and asked a peer to pray for her. Her throat was so bad that she couldn’t swallow her nutritional supplements and she was getting weaker. The peer told Mom out of the blue that God told her that Mom’s fast would be done when she could no longer drink “those things”, but she didn’t know what that meant. Mom did. She started with a little chicken soup and the next day she had a poached egg on toast. She said it was the most delicious thing she’d ever eaten.

Just writing this makes me weepy, and I was choked up on the phone. This didn’t last long, of course, because our joyful chatter turned into a bigger argument than we’ve had in months (catharsis?) and a period of banal conversation to normalize things afterward. I was still upset and stayed upset for many hours, taking refuge as I usually do, in eating too much, drinking too much, and planting ass firmly in cushion. I figured I felt terrible because of the argument, and the physical symptoms of my PMS. It didn’t occur to me to consider that I might be getting sick, too. But I was freezing and aching and my throat was sore, and my weeping was also mucky eyes. Not exactly typical for Hormone Hell Week.

Woke up at three a.m. drenched in sweat, but weirdly euphoric. I took a shower and tried to rally for work, but still felt another wave of miseries coming on and breaking over me. Between the continued symptoms (especially the fever) and the VERY short night, I felt justified in calling in. But despite the physical horridness, I still felt peaceful, even cheerful; as if a burden had been lifted. I felt free to make good choices because I actually wanted the better choice and wanted the better outcome for myself, rather than knowing the right answer and not wanting it but choosing right out of guilt or shame or “should”.

I felt like I wanted to take care of myself again, not because I had to (and *need* to — I have neglected myself for ages, really given up) but because I felt, deep in my bones, that I was worth caring for and doing maintenance on and even nurturing. I can’t tell you the last time I felt that way. And I didn’t feel hungry! Didn’t feel the desperate urge to go fill myself with food. I can’t tell you the last time I felt that way, either. For ages now, I’ve been an insatiable glutton, all binge and no purge. And it’s not that I don’t have a larder full of tasty treats. It’s just that I didn’t feel that anxious and urgent need to eat myself tranquil.

Other strange feelings: I wanted to take out my earrings. Three steel hoops in each ear, and I’ve not taken them out since having them pierced four years ago, almost to the day. I didn’t, but I keep feeling the urge. I would do it right now, but I don’t have a place to put them to keep them separate, keep them safe. (If I didn’t organize them properly, I’d never be able to put them back in due to screw direction and so forth. But once I find the wee bags, out they go.) One thing I did really want to do was cut my hair. So I took off over 12 inches of it. I weighed myself and have hit a record high that I recognize as needing to be addressed sometime, like remembering to take an old suit to the cleaners. I feel light as a feather.

The reason why Honey and I chose 3/20 as our wedding date was because it’s Nowruz, Persian New Year, as well as the first day of spring. Fresh start. I will celebrate any new year designated on the calendar and deeply feel that every day is a new opportunity to change. But this morning I didn’t wake up thinking I needed to change. I woke up feeling that I already had.

I am just doing what I feel supports the change. I don’t want that feeling to go away.

A Bad Day

Tuesday was the anniversary of Grandma dying.  It was a hard day for me, but it’s the worst day of the year for Mom.  I called home with the determination to be calm, soothing, cheerful, and untouched by her dangerous tendency to pick fights when she is feeling vulnerable.
Sure enough, Sister was there, and doubtless she had put in hard time supporting Mom all day to that point, and it’s a very hard day for her, too.  But in the cause of “let’s support Mom by egging on her worst tendencies”, Sister told a story (this is all on speakerphone, which I hate) about a gay cowboy who was a judge on America’s Next Top Model who was from home.  She and Grandma used to “see that little fruit selling his shirts”, etc.
At this point, Mom laughs at the language and they both pause, waiting for me to jump in with what I’m thinking, which is JESUS FUCK, you people, I love you and you know I’m not just PC, I’m bisexual, and it really hurts my feelings when you pull shit like that. I know you’re quoting Grandma, but there’s a reason you’re telling this particular story, at this particular time.
But I know that if I say anything, it will incite them to Drama — a chance to be horrified that I would be so ridiculously hypersensitive, deeply offended that I would accuse them of bigotry, and artificially enraged that I would take Grandma’s name in vain over taking exception at her favorite slur for gay men.  “Grandma loved gay men!  You know that!”
The real purpose is to provoke a catharsis, to put the burden on me to provide them the opportunity to vent their feelings, which we desperately need and which we are culturally prohibited from expressing assertively.  No feels, please; we’re Norwegian farmers.
And finally, it would give them a path to follow for future carefully engineered interactions:  them bringing up or referring to homosexuality using ponderously artificial non-offensive language to cater to my perceived hypersensitivity, with or without complaint (“I don’t know if I’m saying that correctly”, “– or whatever those people are insisting we call them these days”, “But I’m sure you’ll inform me immediately if I’m not doing exactly what those people would prefer”, etc., etc.)  I always ignore this and move on, and then they bitch about it together behind my back.
This process provides an opportunity for them to bond by excluding someone else, and this time around, the outsider happens to be me.  I’ve been included in this process many times over the years, on both ends, and as an observer.  It’s common in our passive-aggressive, non-assertive, “Minnesota Nice” community.  I know it well.  It’s one of the reasons I moved away.
I live far enough away and see them so infrequently that I’m now a safe target rather than a safe confidant.  I wasn’t a target for a long time, because they knew it would just keep me away longer, and because I would, without fanfare, take a vacation from our communication until I could do so with a clear mind and a whole heart.  I am a sufficiently terrible correspondent under normal circumstances that this is not necessarily taken as the cold shoulder.  I go without writing people I would love to be in touch with as well as the ones I kind of can’t stand, so there is no way to be sure.
Then Mom goes into a story about Jim Nabors being treated for liver cancer at the hospital where she used to work, at the beginning of the AIDS awareness period, and sowing all these shitty comments about how “THEY” kept thinking it was “prejudicial” for us to use masks to clean their meal trays,  “prejudicial” to make them use disposable silverware, “prejudicial” not to go in their rooms without face shields and gowns.  “I mean, how in the world could anyone think it would be prejudicial not to want to catch AIDS?”
And since it is what it is, I flatly said, “Because that’s not how you catch AIDS.  HIV can’t be transmitted that way.”  We both had to repeat the interaction twice, verbatim.  Mom couldn’t find a way to pick a fight and eventually headed back to her point, gamely but lamely tying it to the “brush with celebrities” topic that got them talking about gays in bigoted ways, and I got back on track with my mission:  giving Mom supportive attention on her hardest day of the year.
I said I missed home, and snow, and everyone — all true — and that I wished I could bring Honey home on the train — he’s never been on a train — and see the beautiful countryside.  Mom jumped on this, hard, and with great feeling.  She said that would be wonderful and she’d pay and oh please oh please and I said I would try to get time off and we’ll see.  This went on for some time.  I didn’t give her a fight, and I’m glad, but I feel terrible for making her miss me, and especially terrible for throwing a possible visit out there when I felt so hurt by her and Sister’s ugly words.  I wasn’t trying to turn the tables.
And all day I felt sick with grief because any time I spend there will be too long, and not enough.  My guts are churning to think about going there, and churning about the heartbreak of leaving.
I hate posting fresh blood.  But oh my aching spleen, oh my bile-flooded heart.
I’m going to go overeat, perchance to sleep, and pray that Friday follows Thursday.

Sunday Morning Coming Down

Since noon Friday, thanks to my plague-bearing peers who “can’t miss any more work”, I have had a nasty-mean cold rolling over me.  My throat/neck hasn’t hurt this much since I had mumps at age 29, and no drugs have been able to tame the sweats, chills, head pain, body aches, sinus flares, and swelling in my glands and canals.  Normally I go years without catching the crud in a major way, but I am at a new job with a large population of transient patients and norovirus and megalo-tons of stress and coworkers with little ones and things.  The extremely high stress is just a carnival barker handing out free tickets for disease to invade my bod with impunity but it makes a big difference, I think.

When I moved into this new apartment a few months ago, I decided that no pantry = no excess food.  This plan fails when illness joins the party.  Takeout and delivery has been an ungodly expense offering no nutritional support to fight the sickness and enough sodium to wreak havoc on my systolic.  This no-backup food plan will change as soon as I can crawl out from under this blanket and death march my way to the store.  Saltines, canned soup, frozen vegetables, a backup shaker of Vitamin C…heaven is  where you find it.  Oh, and OTC cold meds that aren’t from the Crimean War.  Those would be lovely too.

And tomorrow I have to go to work.  Jesus god no.  But missing work on a Monday is a major red flag here, and I’m still in my probationary period, and I am hating life.  (Self-care: we are required to preach it but we are constrained not to practice it.)  Weird life preserver:  working for the gubmint means I get Tuesday off to recover.  Hooray?  The balance is that, as a gubmint employee, I will also have to haul my ashes to work on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  ARE YOU SHITTING ME, GUBMINT?

Break it down:

1.  Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, in terms of personal preference, but it’s also always been my #1 work holiday since it creates a natural four-day weekend.  Historically, this has made up for being denied days off around so-called “family” holidays because I’m usually one of the only people without children or grandchildren.  Fine, okay — but don’t deny me my goddamn Thanksgiving!

2.  Black Friday?  NO WAY.  I do not don a cute matching mitten-and-hat set to hit the malls and enjoy the crush of humanity taking advantage of retail specials.  Those people (my close family and friends among them) are nuts.  Rage-inducing noise levels, gropers, long lines at Starbucks, rude bitches throwing elbows in the sweater department, young parents using strollers as war chariots?  This is hell on earth.  I like to stay home, nosh on leftovers, sip coffee, and rinse work agita out of my system by reading and napping and pretending the office will be closed for a month.  That snowed-in, bacon-for-breakfast feeling.  But this year I’ll be dodging crazed drivers on their way to Early Bird Sales and hating a day at the office sandwiched between days off.  I know that hospitals and hotels never close, but I bet the patients are tired of me, too.  We could all use a break from each other.

3.  But I’m so very tired generally.  NaNoWriMo has fizzled (got off to a marvelous start, but was derailed by two days crying after discharging a very old person who was heartbroken to be kicked out of The Only Home, bargaining like an eight-year old whose parents are getting a divorce).  I need to clean.  Honey does a lot but if there is something only I care about, then only I can be expected to do it.  Most disappointingly, my diet has fizzled (stress at work: check, low-carb food delivery: no check), and I know the only cure is to get back on the horse.  But the horse is, like, 19 hands high and my short little legs match my T-Rex arms and can’t I just cut myself some slack for once?  I don’t want to *be* slack, I just want not to hate myself for failure.  I know the difference between guilt and shame, and this is hundred-proof shame, straight no chaser.

4.  The diet also fizzled because my morale took a gut punch.  Mom sent me some very cute, very expensive outfits that are waaay too small for me.  The conversation we had about it was really painful.  She was pissed that I was fat, she was pissed that I wasn’t thrilled to get a bunch of clothes I couldn’t wear, she was pissed that I had nowhere to wear them (I wear jeans and tennies in the workplace that involves bodily fluids and physical aggression; I wear shorts and Keds in real life.  I no longer have a life suited to good woolens and delicate blouses and ballet flats); she was pissed that I wasn’t butt-kissingly grateful that she spent a ton of money on clothes that don’t fit my bod or my life even though (a) she knew better and (b) I have been begging her SINCE JUNIOR HIGH not to buy clothes for me. Unlike her, I am a hard size to fit, and I *hate* exchanging clothes; this is a conversation we have had for more than three decades.  She was pissed, full stop, and wanted to fight.  I denied her that pleasure as well.  But I did not relent and change heart and tell her what she wanted to hear.

Which may have been what prompted her to take it to the next level.  She started telling me about how I desperately need a style change and a haircut and so on.  She said that she talked about it with my sister quite a bit.  One recent conversation was about what hair style would suit me, really be good for me.  The answer they came up with? The local weather girl.

I thought this might be interesting, but then I looked her up.  And was floored.  Is this a joke?  She wears one of those bland, lifeless, Sunday-school-teacher style-free cuts that harried young moms get when they give up on looking good.  Lank, limp, lame — it’s an insult to say that ANYONE should wear her hair that way.  It’s like suggesting a brown paper bag over your head as step toward much-needed beautification.  But honestly, step back for a minute.  Sitting around and dissecting the style of someone who is not in the room and then advising her on it?  That is some grade-A Mean Girls shit right there.

Besides, I don’t have money to spend on self-0rnamentation, period.  Even when I was earning a lot more money, I wasn’t spending it on that stuff.  It seemed like a huge waste to blow a couple hundred bucks a month on cosmetic resurfacing when it could go to things like books or gin or rent or retirement.  I used to, but that was a looong time ago, when I still had a quality stylist who would cut, color, and perm my hair for the cost of materials and I used to go dancing every weekend and needed something to wear. My sister has fake hair, teeth, nails, and boobs, and comes home from her long and challenging job to run on the treadmill so she can look good in tight clothes.  I am cool with her doing that and loudly proclaim that she needs no one’s validation to make those choices.  But that’s not the life for me.  It was when I was young, and still craving male approval, still hustling for female envy, still desperate for influence over the men who had so much power over me, and was still cultivating an eating disorder so that I could have control over at least one goddamned part of my life.

It’s true:  I miss looking good in cute clothes.  I miss getting approval for my looks.  And it’s true that I get snarly about being overlooked and put down for my current weight and appearance.  But is catering to shallow people really the answer to my self-esteem issues?  Uhhh, no, not really.  No one’s gaze (‘cept maybe my honey’s) should matter to me, I think, and it really hasn’t for a long time.  But was I ever gutted to hear about my mom and my sis trying to salvage That Ugly Trainwreck, me.

 

More shock: a teenager has snapped again.

Guys, I can’t even.  I *can’t*.

When I was a teenager, there was, for want of a better word, an epidemic of suicides at my high school.  Oh, the shock!  Those poor young people, their whole lives ahead of them!  On and on, the weeping and wailing…with the dark pioneer countryfolk suspicion all around that anyone who can’t handle the cocoon of high school would never have lasted in The Real World where Life is Real Hard.

(The rural identity where I am from, at the place where the northern plains meet the northern Rockies, can be simplified to “the cowards never started and the weak died along the way”.  A lot of adults felt sadness but no pity for kids that weak, because they remember that, at the same age, they were about to be shipped off to Vietnam or Korea or France or Belgium — folks where I’m from live a long piece — or that they were about to spend long war years scratching it alone with little ones.  What in hell makes people give up before the real battle begins?)

Well, I was in high school, and I knew.  I could have told them, but they didn’t ask. And it was before the internet, so my voice went as far as my journal and my loved ones.  Lest ye forget:

Small children have to face small challenges successfully or they will not be prepared for the larger challenges they will face as larger children.  Mastery of those small things will give them confidence to tackle bigger things.  If they are not afforded small challenges, their stunted problem solving abilities will sabotage their ability to care for themselves as adults.

If they do not learn to tolerate distress when they are little, they will not be able to tolerate distress when they are big.  And they will have more powerful expressions of that intolerable distress.

When I was a kid, I learned how to build a fire, manage a fire, extinguish a fire, and what to do if the fire went out of control.  My next sibling was taught that matches are dangerous and never to touch them.  Who is safer?  Who is more confident?  Who is better protected from this hazard and better prepared to face it?  The kid who has been guided, taught, supervised, and exposed to consequences.

Well, guess what?  Social situations are no different.  Anyone who thinks kids don’t need manners doesn’t understand that, among other things, good manners give a kid tools to maintain poise and self-mastery when in uncertain social waters.  Train your kids, test your kids, support your kids. Don’t shield them from awkward or challenging situations, or from difference in peers, or from threats.  Better a kid should face those challenges under a loving wing as a little one than after age 12 or so, when peers have more weight than parents.

I am sad for those quiet kids who grew up in the deep country who couldn’t handle switching from a school of ten kids in eight grades to a three-year county high school with 1500 kids.  I am sad for the Queen Bees of the country schools who turned into little fish in a large pond.  I am sad for kids like me, who turned to voracious overachievers in the struggle to stay afloat, tying our personal value to grades.  Because we were the kids who punished ourselves by not eating for three days when there was an A- paper instead of an A; we were the kids who begged for plastic surgery at age 14; we were the kids who kept the car running in the garage when the folks were at the Elks for the evening and never woke up the next day.  We matter just as much as the kid who took a gun to school.  But if that kid had stayed home and simply taken himself out, the act would have been too common to care.