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Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 7: The Aunts

Me_Deeb_The Aunts_Blog

Debbie, me and The Aunts in Trinidad circa 1974.

At Christmas, when I say I go home, I mean I go to New York, but not the house in Laurelton, Queens where I grew up, or the Cambria Heights one my mother and sister moved to when I was away at my freshman year of college. I go home for Christmas to my Aunt Francis’s house in Long Island, the house where I sleep on the couch so I can snuggle with the cat and where there’s always room for everyone no matter how many of us are crammed in there and where my childhood piano takes up half the living room cause we can’t figure out how to get rid of it now that my 20-something year old cousins no longer use it.

In my own 20s, I didn’t go home for Christmas for years. It was too painful. At my mother’s house, no matter how long I’d stayed away, I was always once again the girl made awkward and stupid by fear. I always lost my voice, I always lost my bearing the moment I walked in the front door. Whether I was in a fat phase or a thin one, I rarely managed to feel pretty at my mother’s house. I knew she disapproved of how I dressed, which was neither provocative nor frumpy, but was merely not the way she dressed. I felt like an outcast because I loved all the wrong things—going to the movies, literary novels, art museums—too much, and I didn’t like the right things—going to church as often as possible, long drawn-out Bible studies—enough. So I avoided going home, saying I couldn’t make the trip from Chicago because I couldn’t afford the plane ticket.

But then I moved back East and decided it was time to join the family again. If Maracas Valley is the heart of my mother’s side of my family in Trinidad, Uniondale and Baldwin have become the heart of our family in America. My mother’s never there with us for Christmas. She stays in Charlotte, sometimes with her husband, sometimes on her own. I am both angry and relieved that she never joins the rest of the family—her younger sisters, her nieces and nephews, her cousins—for our holiday revels. When I visit my mother, I know she is happy to see me, yet even as I hug and kiss her, I can feel her holding me somewhat at arm’s length. My aunts and cousins, on the other hand, burst into wide smiles when they see me. They draw me into close hugs. They text or call me several times before I arrive to find out when I’m coming, if I’m on my way, how soon I’ll get there. I know my mother loves me, but with the aunts and by the aunts, I feel beloved.

According to the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, one of the definitions of beloved is “dear to the heart.” And that’s how I feel with my aunts, that the entire time I am with them, they are pulling me close to their hearts. My mother loves me, I know, but that love is intricately wound with distance, a distance only occasionally bridged by tenderness, and never for very long. On the couch at my aunt’s house, someone is always sitting next to me, or throwing their legs across my lap, or trying to share my blanket. At my aunt’s house, I am always safe.

My aunts weren’t always “the aunts.” I didn’t always say or think that phrase with unbounded affection. The aunts—my mother’s two youngest sisters—lived with us when they both emigrated from Trinidad, first Fran and then Maria, the baby of the bunch. They were barely out of their teens. They’d been raised by a mother who compensated for all the ways she’d been emotionally broken with rage. This rage was often leavened with humor, and my grandmother could also be quite tender when she wanted. But she was also mercurial, and strong-willed, controlling and unaccepting of the idea that someone could have a life other than the one she dictated and planned for them. Her three sons all stayed in Trinidad, but she made sure all of her daughters made it to the United States, even if she had to bully them and wreck their romances to do it. I think my grandmother saw her daughters as problems to be managed, with terror if need be. And that’s how my aunts saw my sister and me, as targets for their own incipient rage. One particular favorite game of theirs was to feint that they were going to hit us, and then as we braced, to laugh and ask, “What are you breaksing for?” breaksing being Trinidadian vernacular for “fending off blows.”

But as they met other women who did not parent their children with slaps and sarcasm, they promised themselves to do differently. And they did. My sister and I delight in telling our cousins how awful their mothers used to be and how they’re so lucky to have the new and improved versions. This tattle-taling is done not with malice, but with great gratitude that they somehow escaped at least this aspect of their emotional DNA. And this parenting is not just for their own daughters, but extends to my sister and me as well. The same is true of my aunts’ first cousins, who always say the same thing when they see Debbie and me, “Oh, these are our first babies,” as they hug us close, show us we are beloved.

My mother has changed in some ways too, but there are so many ways she hasn’t that I find it hard to accept the affection she tries to give me now. I have added my own distance to hers and I’m not sure if what is between us is actually love, or not quite love, or almost love. Or if our love is like the moon on the night before it’s full, when at first glance, it looks whole, but if you peer closely, you can see the slightest sliver still missing.

When I speak to my mother on the phone, I have to anchor myself firmly in the present, remind myself to receive and revel in the affection she’s offering in the here and now. If I let even a wisp of the past creep in, her affection rings hollow. The coldness and constant criticism and lack of praise I remember from my childhood, chills the warmth of whatever loving words she’s trying to offer.

I do not know if there was a time I was ever beloved to my mother. I’m fairly certain that she knew even as I grew in her womb, that just as soon as she could—which turned out to be when I was three months old—she’d leave to start our new lives in the States, though I wouldn’t be part of that life till I was nearly three years old. I have always wanted to ask my mother how she could stand to leave me. What part of her did she have to bury? What did she have to excise? When she tourniquetted her love for me so she could survive the wound of leaving me, did she know she was risking a permanent amputation?

This wasn’t just a mother going back to work after maternity leave. This was a mother allowing an ocean to come between her and her child. Perhaps it’s that ocean that I sense in the shade of difference between being beloved by my aunts and being loved my mother. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to figure out how to cross that ocean completely. We seem to do well muddling around somewhere in the middle of that ocean, even though it’s not all that satisfying, and neither one of us ever feels safe enough to remove our life jackets. I don’t know if it’s giving up or accepting what I cannot change to never call my mother home. And if I do have a place where I am beloved, and people by whom I’m beloved, maybe it’s a question I don’t have to answer.

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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 20 (on rage)

 

I read this blog post by my friend Jonno and I started to respond by writing this:

“We are told to let it go, whatever it is. Childhood abuse, a broken marriage, a friend’s betrayal. We are never told to go at our own pace. Or that letting go is a process. Or that letting go is a convoluted kind of thing that happens only in pieces. That it’s a dance where you never quite learn the steps.”

Jonno had found himself still enraged by abuse that happened decades ago, and was struggling with the idea that that rage was still roiling inside of him though he thought he had worked through all of it. I was angry on his behalf at that idea that our processing of trauma had some kind of time limit on it. At least I thought that’s what I was angry about.

My blog post petered out after 16 sentences. I told myself it was because I’d been doing so much writing and editing—as I was on the verge of being out of the office for two weeks—that I just didn’t have any mojo left. I was out of words. I was out of space to think. And maybe, to be kind to myself, I should say that that was partly true.

But what was more true was that I recognized in Jonno’s post a similar anger in myself. He wrote:

“I see it all the time in my work. I teach actors I try to prompt them, try to get them to lose their fear of that rage I see in so many of them. I tell them it’s okay to give in to it, that the fire they are so afraid of will not, cannot, shall not consume them.

“But I’m lying. My own chest contains a bomb. I am terrified of its power.”

I am terrified of my own bomb ticking, my possible detonation. I am terrified that the engine of these poems about my father is not a need to understand nor a need to forgive but sheer rage. I know that without the poems, I would ignite and each time I run out of words, the ticking asserts itself, its volume undiminished by the years, by the poems. My rage is rarely heard by the outside world, yet it never decrescendos.

I do not want anyone to see my anger. If they do, I might learn that the story it took me so long to untell myself—that I carried deep inside a monster, a feral creature of black and pitch that made it impossible for anyone, particularly my parents, to emotionally care for me—may be true after all.

I tell myself it’s better that I stay alone. Sure I can exist in civilization for short bursts. Sure I can have friends and I can love and be loved. But I’m not sure I can let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I am not sure I want to let anyone close enough to hear the ticking. I do not want to indelibly bruise anyone with my anger because I’ve been indelibly bruised. Sure, I’ll show you my bruises, but I’m not sure I can let you close enough that you might accidentally graze them. I cannot let you touch me with your accidental trigger finger.

One last thought from Jonno:

“I have finally had to admit that I contain so much anger, so much atomic fury, that I fear if I let it out I’ll never come back to myself.”

Without that rage-built metronome, what will I write about? If I run out of that anger, how will I know that I’ve survived and I’ve not been broken entirely? When that trip wire finally snaps, who will I be? What if I can’t find the words to put myself back together? What if even all of the hands of every single person in this whole world who loves me even a little just isn’t enough to heal me? And if the detonator is pushed and nothing at all happens, who am I then?

 

Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day Two

I go overboard.

Twenty-seven years ago I watched a production of Terence McNally’s Frankie and Johnnie at the Claire de Lune night after night recognizing myself in the moment Johnnie admitted, “I hold on to new things too hard…” the same way I recognized myself in Jane Eyre hiding in the library from the anger and meanness of the house where she lived.

I fling myself headfirst into the joy of a new friend, my admiration boundless, relentless. It’s something to do with how I haven’t yet unlearned what always seemed to be true: that nothing good lasts. Not because all things good and bad end, as I now know they do, but because I fervently believed (I fervently had to believe) that there was something slippery and dark in me that didn’t deserve to hold onto people or to have people hold onto me. I know differently now yet feel the same as then.

 

I forget I have more of value to give of myself than just devotion, that I don’t have to earn my way into getting someone to stick around. I forget that it is not a question of whether or not I deserve to be liked, much less loved. I forget that I should pause to recognize myself in the moment when Mark Darcy tells Bridget Jones, “I like you just as you are.”

I forget too that there’s nothing wrong with going overboard once no laws are broken, or no bones are broken as I fling myself full-body into whatever my newest affection. Who doesn’t want to be extravagantly admired, at least for a little while? And since I no longer do the thing where I show up at someone’s house as they’re sitting down to dinner and insist on waiting because the joy I feel when I’m near them trumps all common sense…?

I am not saying any of this well and I confess I’m annoyed at myself for feeling that I owe anyone–myself included–an explanation. Sometimes I just want to feel–wildly, boundlessly–without wondering, “Too much? Too much?”  I don’t expect to be entirely free of everything that was broken in childhood. Why would I want to be when it’s the broken bits–for better or for worse–that make me who I am? What I do want to be entirely free of is feeling bad when those broken bits surface, especially since these days, at worst, they may cause someone else a paper cut or too, a small price to pay for connection.

I want to hold onto new things too hard, and have that be the exactly right thing to do.

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 9)

…. And today, as I start year 45, I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve found some quality people to connect to, people who—to borrow from Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary because, well, Colin Firth—like me just as I am. And that is both glorious as hell and profoundly uncomfortable, don’t you think Marc?

(I wrote that last bit when I got home from my birthday revels last night, which consisted of tapas, two margaritas, and a solo shot of tequila for sipping. Which isn’t to say I was drunk. Or tipsy. But things were a little shaky moving from the couch to my desk and so forth.)

I’m thinking about what I mean by the fact that being loved “just as I am” can be profoundly uncomfortable. What is so scary about someone loving us even with all our flaws intact? Is it that if they accept us no matter what we don’t have an excuse to escape when feelings get too intense? Is the fact that knowing that someone accepts my flaws can be a catalyst to work on them problematic because my perfectionism kicks in and I live in constant fear of disappointing them even though I’ve already established that they’re going to love me anyway? There’s some sort of pressure I feel with close relationships that I can’t quite explain or articulate. When I feel myself getting close to a person, it can feel like a vise closing, like asthma attacking my lungs.

I want to write this in the past tense—when I felt myself getting close to a person—and I do think that feeling has grown more muted over the years, but there are definitely times when a maelstrom of doubt rises up regarding whether even my closest friends really care for me, and, of course, I’m always the bad guy. “It’s because I said that thing at breakfast.” “It’s because I didn’t go to that party.” “It’s because I told that joke.”

That doubt, that overdeveloped willingness to take the blame—isn’t that how I survived childhood?—has led me to cling on to some very toxic friendships. I’d blame myself for all the bad feelings, all the bad times, and keep hold of them and never notice how that person was undermining me, never supporting me, never going out of their way for me. Which I’ve slowly and painstakingly had to learn is what a normal relationship is like. I’ve also slowly and painstakingly had to learn that even the most devoted friend can’t show up every single time. And that’s also what a normal relationship is like.

I say “had to learn” but the truth is I’m re-teaching myself that lesson more days than I’d like. You asked once on air why you always seem to have to relearn the same shit. My answer? Just because. I think maybe that it might not even be because you or I are particularly broken—though we are broken in a particular way. For all of us, maybe, there’s some lesson we need to learn over and over again and maybe we are still learning even as we transition to the next life. What do you think?

To be continued…

Writing About My Father, Day 11

PauletteGuyanacirca1972

Here’s me in Guyana circa 1972, back when I used to be “tall for my age.” Sigh…

If you partake at all in the Facebook world, you may have seen the meme going around where someone tells you a random number of equally random facts about themselves. If you comment on the post, you are given a number and encouraged to create your own random list of that number of items. In that spirit, with a number provided by Katrina M., here are 8 random facts about my father.

1. My father didn’t meet me until I was approximately six weeks old. (My parents lived in Guyana. My mother went home to Trinidad—against my father’s wishes—to have me. The way my mother tells it, my father was so angry that he didn’t go to Trinidad for my birth and waited to meet me, instead, until my mother and I flew back to Guyana.)

2. My father was one of the smartest boys in his class. The high school he went to was known for producing future prime ministers and members of Parliament. When my father moved to the States, he decided not to go college because he was making good money at the phone company.

3. When I asked my father for his financial information so I could apply for financial aid for college, his answer was, “I have a new family now.”

4. My father took my sister and me on a bus trip to see the World’s Fair in Tennessee in 1982. That was the summer roadtrip on which we met our first brother who’s younger than me and older than my sister.

5. My parents were officially divorced when I was nine years old. They sat us down at the dining room table with my mother’s two youngest sisters, who lived with us at the time, and told us what was going on. After the family meeting, going upstairs to our bedrooms, I asked my father why they were getting divorced. He told me I was supposed to have asked all of my questions at the table.

6. I first learned about sex when I was in single digits through my father’s Playboy magazines and my mother’s Harlequin romances.

7. My father followed my mother to the U.S. when I was around six months old. To my knowledge I didn’t see them again until I was around two-and-a-half and moved to the U.S. with my father’s mother.

8. The first time I ate a veggie burger was in the mid-1980s when my father took my sister and me to some sort of “health fair’ in Manhattan during a weekend visit. All I remember was that there were lots of alfalfa sprouts.

Something I had to go through…

by Karen Yankosky, Splat-ospheric

I separated from my now ex-husband in late July of 2011, after a mere ten months of marriage.

In those ten months, “Mark” and I had torn down my old rambler in Falls Church in September of 2010 and had a new one built in its place. The process of building the new house exposed major cracks in the foundation of our relationship. The structure “we” built—a 6,000-square-foot box that I later dubbed the “Yuppie Prison”—didn’t have a whole lot of me in it.

By the time it was finished, not only did I dislike the house but I disliked what it stood for: for our inability to make joint decisions, to compromise, to resolve conflict in other than win/loss terms.

Mark and I never occupied the new house, but that didn’t bother me because it never felt like home to me, anyway. The fact that I had no home to go back to, however, did trouble me.

My sister, her husband, and their two kids solved that problem in short order by opening up their house and hearts to me. While at age 40 I might not have chosen to move into a basement with eight and nine-year-old “roommates,” within days of getting there I knew I was in a better place, in every possible way.

A couple weeks after that, a good friend invited me to meet her at a photography show at a gallery in Bethesda. The artist, a friend of hers, photographs sculpture.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an art connoisseur—I’ve spent very little time truly studying it—but I do admire and appreciate it. I approach it much in the same way I do wine, which I also enjoy but haven’t studied much: I know what I like when I encounter it, and I consume what I like without apology.

I accepted my friend’s invitation and arrived a while before she did, which gave me a chance to stroll through the show on my own. I liked most of the images I saw, but this one stopped me in my tracks.

photo (6)

I can’t explain my visceral reaction to it. I just know I connected with it as soon as I saw it, without knowing what the sculpture depicted or what the piece was called. (I later found out the sculpture was a temporary installation in Charlottesville. I had gone to college there, so I even connected with the setting.)

I liked the composition of the shot, the lighting, and the way the perspective of the photo changes the way the viewer experiences the sculpture.

Then I saw the title of the piece, which was also the title of the sculpture: “This is something I had to go through.”

Realizing that I was looking at a person-sized hole in a huge hunk of metal sent me into a fit of laughter.

This piece of art within a piece of art captured exactly how I felt about the dark, unpleasant process I had just started, along with my certainty that I would bust my way through it and back out into the sun. And that, however improbably, I would laugh along the way.

I kept that piece in my mind’s eye for the next nine months of unpleasantness. It soothed me, amused me, and inspired me. And it still does, because it now graces the wall of the house I bought in April. We all have our reminders of what we’ve gone through, whether it’s a souvenir, a scar, or, in my case, a piece of art.

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