When you're going home for Easter weekend and you've been studying for the examination your whole life yet continue to freak out about passing OR failing as a good-enough person, desperation might force you to write a few crib notes and stick 'em in the buckled straps on your Birkenstock shoes. In case you don't already know because you used to write cheats on the palms of your hands, crib notes are little pieces of paper with teensy-weensy answers in the rare event you forgot what you learned. I like using size 3.5 in Century Gothic font. Seems rather appropriate for the occasion.
“I am a WoNderful woman of worth.”
“I stand tall and proud of my ability to draw from my own strength.”
“I am good enough, smart enough and gosh darnit, people like me.”
Yes, those are the answers escaping memory while squirming under the scrutinizing glare of pietistic kinfolk. The ones who dare any kid of 58 to assume she's a WoNderful anything much less proclaim it with a straight face. I've discovered wincing to be fairly convincing of my feminine meekness. You must act as if you don't really believe you're WoNderful. It's your therapist making you say it so that makes your hubris tolerable. If affirmations are prescribed it's no different than taking Xanax for anxiety. People will understand since you've been through a terrible ordeal they wouldn't wish on anyone especially a female of a certain age which probably means she'll never find another man who'll take care of her again.
Testing....Testing...How's my 'healing' at this point?
It’s been several months since the last visit to my parent’s home. We are thrilled to see each other. Mom and Dad are their usual hospitable selves, cooking up a storm even though they’d rather be sitting in easy chairs watching Fox News. Their house is clean (a little too clean; it bothers me to put folks out when a random cobweb makes me feel at home). There's extra toilet paper in the bathrooms and soft towels stacked liked luxurious linens in a Nordstrom department store. Fresh soaps smelling like French lavender are arranged beside every sink. Mom even moved a lovely reading lamp next to my guest bed since she knows there’s not much else for me to do other than read before drifting to sleep. I am still an oddity: the eldest daughter who has no husband and as far as anyone can tell, thinks she's WoNderful. We had a tender and warm welcome on Day One of a four-day weekend.
We're still pretty thrilled to be together. We’re weary from lots of talking and lots of walking back and forth to Mom’s refrigerator or to the downstairs freezer for Schwan’s ice cream bars. I figure going up and down a flight of stairs cancels out the calories if people take double steps on the up-climb. Maybe that’s not true. I’m certainly not above lying to myself to feel better about my choices.
Mom delegates tasks to the grandkids so everyone earns their place at the table. We cook and clean and eat and chat and watch TV and visit the greenhouse to see their thousands of flowers and vegetables getting an early start on spring planting and we talk about the weather and farming and the price of electricity and cost of drilling new wells now that the aquifer is lower than ever. We talk about the local news: who’s having babies, who died, who’s getting divorced and how the next generation of farmers is more devoted to money than cultivating the earth and the normal stuff people talk about in rural towns where people watch out for community welfare by keeping tabs on rule-breaking folks.
I’m a bit uncomfortable during the last segment of conversation because “I” break the rules; but since I live in the city, it’s to be expected. Still, anxiety is starting to raise it's wicked head. I stare at my shoes.
“I am a WoNderful woman of worth.”
“I am good enough, smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me.”
“I radiate love and peace with every step and breath I take.”
That last one’s a skosh over the top but a woman under scrutiny doesn’t argue with positive affirmations countering inner and outer critics. I envision myself as a Buddha with peaceful lotus blossoms springing from my love-trail while walking past the Quonset, wood shop, and over the soft ground covering a buried gas tank most likely leaking into what's left of the aquifer.
At the end of Day Two, my ‘affirmations’ are holding me steady. Dad’s slightly worried about my repetitive tap-tap-tapping on my head and collarbone whenever familial conversations drift to the topic of religion. Mom wonders if I have an anxiety disorder. My sister assumes I’m begging for attention. My nephew worries his Aunt has a typing disorder because her keyboard’s in another state and she doesn’t know what else to do with her fingers.
There’s enough leftover food to feed an army without cooking for another week. This facilitates meandering musings getting very close to the borderline of forbidden topics. However, we’ve bonded as a family for three days and nobody’s blown up or started crying so our boundaries relax a little. Maybe this time we’ll make it through the visit without one sibling telling the other that Jesus would not want them for a sunbeam. All is well. All is swell.
Then my sister starts heralding Glenn Beck as a smart man who knows what's up in this world and if people know what's good for them, they''ll read his book and hearken the wisdom of his political commentary. I look down. Real hard. And crimenantlies! I musta lost my crib notes stepping over Dad's geraniums in the greenhouse. I am stumped for a few seconds until retrieving an affirmation hanging out in my corpus callosum:
“Even though I have this anger towards my family,
I deeply and completely accept myself.”
Then, as feared, Henry’s Law enters the picture. Now Henry’s law is based on a quote by Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau's Law sounds too scientific so it's simply Henry's Law to me. Henry's Law of Familial Fusion is:
“If I knew for sure that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I would run for my life.”~Henry Thoreau
I know how Henry feels. Running a couple hundred miles is not a viable option when family members start telling me things for my own good or talking over me as if I weren't able to figure out they were talking about me. Then here it comes, the dreaded discussion about a particular family member breaking up the eternal clan ‘cuz she should be doing better than she's doing though they love her anyway since she does so many good things for people, as anybody can see as plain as the no's on their faces.
My breathing may have been shallow prior to introducing Henry's Law; at this point, I've stopped breathing completely---anticipating the next comment about “Loving the sinner and hating the sin” which from the side of the sinner sounds an awful lot like people lying to themselves about making judgments they aren’t supposed to make. I learned about cognitive dissonance on Wikipedia.
I start thinking about a lot of things while holding my emotions at bay, which is very hard to do when feelings become runaway horses without saddles or reins. This kind of covert aggression against the odd-one-out is very hard to take when you’ve spent the last several years learning how to separate yourself while maintaining connection to people you love because of your differences. I wish other people would love me because of my differences instead of seeing difference as invalidation.
Well, if wishes were horses beggars would ride.
I don't mind difference. It makes me feel like a person in my own right and not an unpalatable mélange of oatmeal, raisins, and brown sugar cooked down like a bowl of morning porridge. I like that last word. Porridge. It reminds me how Poor we are when difference is threatening and connection is reduced to no difference at all.
The rule of law in a closed family system is conformity at all costs to individual integrity. You are not supposed to say anything threatening other people’s security by validating your own difference in thought, behavior or feelings. The right answers to the test of familial enmeshment can be the wrong answer to loving yourself. I try very hard to be honest with about falling into old patterns of "false togetherness” which you might say is denying yourself and others a Growth Opportunity. If I dare to speak up for what I believe to be true, my family says, “We should all learn to tolerate each other’s differences.”
The problem is that I never liked the word tolerance very much and that was long before people had to tolerate me. There’s nothing quite as educational as being on the experiential end of the tolerance stick. Maybe we start with tolerance as a goal when the next step is actually acceptance. Once we accept each other's differences, we can move towards the highest goal of all: appreciation. Appreciation for one another’s differences because we are not threatened by our own.
I made a lot of mistakes differentiating myself from my family (autonomy) and then reconnecting to them (togetherness). It’s not as easy as it sounds and sometimes people assume they have individuated when in fact, they are still attached as strongly as ever---rebelling against a dysfunctional family rather being ‘free’ to be themselves. People on either side of the great divide are still telling one another whom they should be or what they should do in order to be worthy of one another’s love and respect. They are still actively invalidating each other rather than accepting one another as separate, yet connected.
“And people who really know what’s good for them, will be obedient without question.” My sister continues, bringing my reverie back to the present moment.
Unfortunately, my reign over galloping emotions was broken. “I hate Glenn Beck”, I said in a not-so-grown-up voice. Without looking at my shoes for support continued, “And anybody who believes that jackass is an idiot!”
It isn’t easy working on yourself and despite your highest intentions, falling flat on your Birkenstocks.
The rest of the night was a little rough, to say the least. I felt terrible about my outburst, my inability to remain objective, to act with lovingkindness and tolerance for my sister’s opinions. I felt lousy about myself and all my high-falutin’ pretenses that I accepted my family, even welcomed our differences with an appreciative and glad heart.
I sit by my sister for breakfast and apologize for being rude. I ask her, “Can we agree to disagree?”
“Of course, comrade.” she says (comrade being a codeword for communist). “But I will never talk politics with you again and since you aren’t interested in obedience to God’s laws, we will avoid that topic, too. Do whatever you want but remember: there will be a day of reckoning and we’ll see who’s right then!”
”You are a WoNderful woman of worth,” I insist. “I love you exactly the way you are.”
It’s a start.