Dear Fatherland: the pallbearers were probably not skinheads, but I don’t know, and reflections on grief, roots, and love

For my dad

Nov 29, 2017
Kafefajka, Nowy Swiat
Warszawa

I.

Dear Fatherland,

You’re beautiful even on a grey and drizzly November morning.

But your government is fascist.

Your religion is medieval.

Your customer service sucks.

And your people are rude and pushy.

II.

We bury my grandfather on Tuesday, on a grey but dry November afternoon. I stand in the cold chapel looking at his embalmed corpse, waiting for feelings.

There don’t seem to be any—just a clinical curiosity.

An awareness that the suit his body is wearing is the suit he wore to my wedding, 17 years ago.

Then, an awareness of the awareness (how’s that for meta thoughts?) that I was thinking of the corpse very comfortably as a corpse—my grandfather’s body, but certainly not my grandfather. Not at all.

Which, of course, is at it should be.

A corpse is not a person.

III.

I don’t like coming back “home.”

I never feel more alien—or more Canadian—than when I visit the place where I was born.

IV.

My grandfather’s sister, 14 years his junior, is already in the chapel when I enter. Not alone—her husband and daughter are with her.

I’m not alone either. I’m accompanying my grandfather’s youngest daughter, caretaker—chief mourner—who’s my father’s youngest sister. Therefore, my aunt, but closer in age to me than to my father, so really, my sister.

My grandfather’s sister is crying.

His daughter (my aunt-but-more-sister)–eyes dry this time—they have been wet a lot—suggests they pray together.

For his soul?

They start a pattern of Our Fathers and Hail Marys, the three women of the family—my grandfather’s sister, his daughter, his niece. The only man in the chapel—my great uncle, I suppose—mouths the words, but makes no sound.

When my mother walks into the chapel a few minutes later, she joins the chorus of the praying women.

It is very strange for me to hear my mother pray.

V.

When I come “home” to visit—and I come, it seems, only for weddings and funerals (and not all of them), and once, a baptism—it generally takes me two or three days to start hating Poland.

This time, my dislike for the people I come from hits me in Amsterdam as I board the plan for Warsaw, as they seem to go out of their way to push and jostle me as they rush for the plane.

They’re so loud.

Their voices grate on my ears, and their bodies invade my personal space.

And their casual racism and sexism, with the thinnest veneer of European worldliness, disgusts me.

“You’ll get used to it,” my mother says.

I don’t want to.

VI.

Four young men with shaved heads—one has a neo-Mohawk—who probably aren’t skinheads, but well, look more like skinheads than pall bearers despite the white cotton gloves on their hands—carry the coffin with my grandfather’s body from the chapel to a Mercedes hatchback, which rolls slowly towards the front doors of the church, a few dozen meters away.

We follow, first the car, then the pall bearers—always, the coffin—into the church.

My aunts—my grandfather’s sister, my grandfather’s daughter—walk arm-in-arm with their husbands and children; I walk with my mother, conscious that I am my father’s stand-in. Conscious too of my red coat, its brightness imperfectly hidden by my black scarf.

Everyone else is wearing black.

VII.

The funeral home taking care of my grandfather’s body, by the way, is called Anubis.

VIII.

I recently attended a German Catholic mass for a friend’s father. This one is almost identical, except for the language in which it’s delivered. Well, and the priest is younger and seems to have committed at least some of the words of the liturgy to his memory. But not all. He does a lot of reading.

I am struggling to stay respectful. But I feel more like a spectator at a dated theatre play than a celebrant of a holy rite.

I start counting the number of times the word “sin” occurs; lose count and interest at 21.

It had been my intention to observe the outer forms. The sign of the cross; the responses to the prayers. It’s been almost 30 years, but I probably remember—I remembered enough of the patterns at the German Catholic mass to stand up, sit down and kneel down at the appropriate places.

But I can’t.

The words aren’t just empty, they are distasteful.

I stand in silence.

My inner (bad) Buddhist counsels understanding and suggests I take the opportunity to do a metta meditation.

The outer atheist says, “Fuck that shit. Don’t still your mind: scratch at all the scabs and take notes.”

The writer agrees. So I look around with the cold, unforgiving eyes of the documentarian. Collect source materials.

Listen to the whispers of the mourners, hissed under the cover of music and prayers… but almost always audible.

Analyze the appearances and manifestations of grief.

Halfway around the world—fine, less than a quarter, 7,778 kilometres away—my father, the eldest son, is spending a sleepless night alone.

I try to shift into watching with his eyes, not mine. But it’s hard; self obtrudes.

IX.

The night after the funeral, I spend my sleepless hours—still jet-lagged, tired but unable to give in to sleep—texting with Internet strangers as unrooted in time zones as I am. One’s a Moroccan born in France (but not French), now based in Dubai, who was just in Warsaw on business. The other’s a UK-educated Tamil now working in Geneva.

All three of us have a poor sense of which time zone and country we’re in currently; I feel a stronger kinship with them than with my Polish family.

After a short discussion of my peculiar childhood in Libya and his European-North African shuffling, we end up talking about sheesha, and the Moroccan tells me where I can find a sheesha lounge in Warsaw.

I’m thrilled.

X.

The best part of my grandfather’s funeral mass for me is the entrance of my younger cousins with their very young children: a girl four years of age and a seven month old baby in a sling.

The girl is all smiles. She loves the flowers—the coffin and path leading up to it are adorned with bouquets and wreaths—and she beams at her grandparents with perfect happiness.

She and her brother affirm the beauty of life for me much more eloquently than the priest’s canonized readings and out-of-the-can sermon on eternal life.

I do think, though, that life would sometimes be easier if one were not an atheist and a pathological scab-scratcher and curtain ripper and could just accept something, anything on face value. You know?

XI.

The church, by the way, is beautiful. About 200 years old, but built in the Gothic style, designed to make man (not in the gender neutral sense; woman was simultaneously irrelevant and unreal—this, after all, is the religion that venerates a mother in the form of a virgin)—feel small and God grand.

God, I have the irreverent thought, must have a very fragile ego to require all these giant buildings to feel good about himself…

XII.

We follow the coffin—carried by the probably-not-skinheads-(but after that Nov 11 March of Shame, I don’t know, I think they might be–I look at every Pole I pass with suspicion and fear)-pallbearers out of the church and to the Mercedes again, and then we follow the slowly rolling car to the cemetery.

The priest, clad in an odd ceremonial black cap that looks like a cupcake with a pompom, leads the way.

In the recently restored family grave rests the body of my grandmother—my father’s mother—and her parents.

She died at age 53, when I was seven or eight, and living in Libya. I didn’t attend her funeral, nor did my father.

My mother was there, though.

My great-grandmother on my father’s side died in 2003, age 93.

I remember her.

I loved her.

XIII.

I’m not sure that I loved my grandfather, and frankly, until his death, I have no real evidence that my father loved him. The night after the funeral, when I talk with my father, he is crying. Grieving, mourning. He sends me a copy of the letter he wrote to my grandfather the week before my grandfather died—at his sister’s request.

The letter is full of good memories and warm feelings.

It ends with, “I love you very much, Dad.”

It’s the first time I hear those stories.

I know my grandfather’s youngest daughter, who took care of him through to his death, loved him (loves him still if one loves the dead themselves and not their memory? I am not sure who the object of love is once life is gone…).

This, I always knew and had evidence of. I saw them together, loving and supporting each other. And she has talked to me of him, with love.

I probably know him best through her stories.

XIV.

At the sheesha place the day after the funeral, I’m served by a Polish woman and then by two Turkish men, who both speak fluent Polish—they understand my Polish better than they do my English, which makes me laugh.

I’m one of three customers when I come in. One is a silent Pole–and despite his shorn hair, I’m pretty sure he’s not a skinhead; the other, an Arab who makes several business phone calls in beautiful German.

Citizens of the world.

XV.

The last time I saw my grandfather was at my brother’s wedding. In Poland, in 2009, because my brother’s wife is a Polish woman—whom he met in Korea.

At the wedding, a 70-something widow who spent the weekend making an ardent play for my then-80-year-old grandfather asked us when we last saw each other.

We looked at each other, my grandfather and I, and we both did the math with some effort.

“Ten… no, nine years ago,” I said.

“In 2000, at her wedding,” he said.

The hunting widow gasped, and put her hands on the hand my grandfather had on top of mine–squeezed it. He smiled.

(My twice-married grandfather—he remarried very quickly after my grandmother’s death–and I never really knew my step-grandmother, although she too was at my wedding—was a player until he died, and the joke among my cousins and my brother’s single friends that weekend was that Grandfather was the only one who scored. Possibly more than once.)

“It must be so hard,” my grandfather’s would-be lover said. “To have your granddaughter so far away. To see her so rarely. You must miss her.”

“Well, you know,” my grandfather said. “It’s been like that for a long time. You get used to it.”

I nodded.

My mother, who overhead the conversation, was appalled.

“How can anyone not miss their grandchildren?” she demanded of me, holding my children on her lap in a covetous embrace

She didn’t understand, at all.

But I did.

Geography matters.

Time spent matters.

If my grandfather didn’t miss me–well, I didn’t miss him either.

My children will also miss only one set of grandparents.

XVI.

At the cemetery, an octogenarian woman—who probably also wished to share my grandfather’s bed at some point (like, when I mention that player thing… it’s not even a slight exaggeration…)—reads a letter, a eulogy of sorts—of behalf of my grandfather’s (legion of girl)friends, from the Warsaw branch of the University of the Third Age.

It’s a beautiful letter that describes, lauds, and mourns a  man I did not know, at all.

But apparently, I’m not the only to have that reaction.

“Wow, those people did not know Grandfather at all,” my cousin—the daughter of my grandfather’s youngest daughter, and the mother of the children who save the funeral mass for me—says. She’s known my–our–grandfather intimately all of her life. She loves him, knows him.

That’s not him, she says.

Fog and mirrors, I think. That was him, I suppose, to them…

The University of the Third Age woman also reads a poem written by my grandfather’s last paramour, the woman with whom he sorta-kinda-but-not-really-almost lived since the death of his second wife up to the final two years of his life.

The final two years of his life, he spent living with his youngest daughter, fighting to maintain the semblance of independence at a huge price, paid almost in full by his daughter.

It was, I think, too high a price to pay.

But you see… she loved him so much.

(I love my father very much… but I would not do that for him. We talk about it at length, my parents and I. “A nursing home, please, as soon as I can’t care for myself, and you don’t even have to come visit if I lose my mind,” my mother says. “Just, um, make sure it’s a nice nursing home.” My father shudders. “Kill me first,” he says.)

My grandfather’s last paramour—should I call her his lover? partner?—does not comprehend this price, and resents that my grandfather–unable to walk or sit up without help, among other things–spent the last few weeks of his life in a full-care nursing home.

Her poem is as full of the anger and resentment as it is of love.

It contains the phrase “contemptuous people,” which is a blatant slap in the face of my aunt—the woman who changed my grandfather’s diapers, took him to endless doctors’ appointments, bathed and fed him, almost to the end of his life.

I find it interesting that my aunt and my father give the status-less paramour the compassion and understanding that she can’t give them.

Isn’t wisdom, perspective something that comes with age?

Apparently not; the paramour avoids my aunt in the church and at the cemetery, and refuses to come to the post-funeral dinner with us.

Family is complicated.

Is love?

XVII.

My mother and my grandfather—her father-in-law—also had a fraught, complicated relationship.

I understand the specifics of it imperfectly, and yet the thrust of it very well, because I don’t love my father-in-law either.

We resent the slights and harm done to people we love more than we resent slights against ourselves.

My father-in-law has never harmed me. (I didn’t love him, so how could he, really, even if he tried?)

But what he did to the man I love, I find difficult to forgive.

Love is also very simple.

XVIII.

My aunt asks me and my father to prepare the eulogy for the funeral. It’s really something that she’s the best suited person to do, but she frames it as my father’s job as the eldest son—she also defers to my skills as the family writer.

I don’t even have to tell my father “But I didn’t know him!” He sits down to work on the eulogy and spends a week writing, revising, crafting—creating a goodbye that compromises between justice, truth, and love… liberally tempered with compassion.

It’s beautiful, and I find out that my storytelling talent has come to me in equal parts from both parents.

(Never ask anyone in my family for a clear, concise accounting of the facts. We can’t do it. Ask us for a good story, on the other hand…)

The priest refuses to read the eulogy in the church. Or at the graveside.

“It’s inappropriate,” he tells my aunt.

“Fuck that shit,” the daughter in me doesn’t even give my bad Buddhist a chance to breathe.

As the mini-drama unfolds beside the grave, I wonder how big a scene I’m going to have to make to carry out my father’s wishes.

My lack of ability to compromise, and disdain for conventional social mores—I smooth my red coat with pride now—that comes from my mother’s side of the family.

 

XIX.

My father comes from a devout family. The oldest child and only son, he was nonetheless in his early childhood intended for the priesthood—or at least holiness. He does occasionally tell me that story.

I’m not sure if his eventual atheism—he calls himself an agnostic, but I think it runs deeper than that—is innate or rebellion.

My grandfather, his tomcatting notwithstanding (as is the case, frankly, with most of the Poles I know) would describe himself, throughout his life, as a devout and practicing Catholic.

Both his daughters remain religious and devout.

The elder one and her family are not at the funeral.

Family, as I’ve said, is complicated.

The younger daughter is effectively running the funeral, and I decide it’s, ultimately, her place to figure out how balancing the priest’s dogma and my father’s wishes should play out.

But I realize my hands are balled into fists and my heart rate is elevated.

XX.

My father’s youngest sister is 12 years younger than he and only ten years older than I am. She is my aunt, but more my sister and friend than aunt. Her children—my cousins—are now in their early thirties and late twenties—in other words, at an age where we are all effectively peers.

Her daughter is the mother of the two children who return meaning to the funeral mass for me, and her son has an actor’s beautiful voice.

As the priest leaves the gravesite, not in a huff, exactly, but… ungraciously, I would say—my cousin liberates the microphone from his assistant.

(His assistant, by the way, is a 60+ year old altar boy. Deacon, perhaps. He’s wearing jeans and this pisses me off—“Show some respect for my grandfather, you peon!” My reaction amuses me.)

My cousin reads my father’s eulogy in his beautiful actor’s voice and I relax.

He also pulls out a portable speaker that he had hidden somewhere in his winter coat and plays the song with which my father wanted to end the funeral mass, with which he wanted to say goodbye to his father.

XXI.

In the sheesha bar, the Polish waitress speaks with the two owners in Turkish. Then switches to English to serve another customer.

Citizens of the world, all of us.

She’s a lovely person, I’m sure. But she seems put out every time I ask her for something. She does it… but just with a tinge of resentment.

I don’t say, “It’s your fucking job. Boil the water for my tea, goddammit.”

But I think it.

I think about the priest, too. What is his fucking job, exactly?

Did he do the right thing by his job, by his God, in refusing to accede to my father’s request?

I doubt it.

But he did the typically Polish customer service thing—leaving the customer served… but unsatisfied.

XXII.

From the cemetery, we trail, in couples and clumps, to a nearby “locale” that celebrants of funerals, weddings, baptisms and possibly other events, hire for post-mass dinners and revelries.

“You have to eat a warm dinner after a funeral,” my aunt-sister-friend tells me earlier when she’s explaining the day’s agenda to me.

(Poles are very serious about their warm dinners—our lunches.)

The dinner is for about 30 people, family and close friends.

I’m introduced to an assortment of family I know not at all or not very well, including my father’s outrageously beautiful goddaughter, who is also his niece—and the mother of three fully adult children.

Her mother is my grandfather’s youngest sister, and the last remaining of his siblings. She was the first in the chapel to stand vigil with his body. She shed tears there; she sheds tears still.

Introduces herself to me twice. The first time, she doesn’t know who I am—the second time, she does.

We eat.

Conversation, memories, stories.

The children play hide and seek, ask for seconds and thirds of dessert—are responsible for most of the laughter in the room.

XXIII.

The near-five decade Communist occupation of Poland leaves all sorts of lingering legacies, and I suppose Poland’s current fascist religious turn is one of them.

Shitty customer service is another.

The locale’s serving wenches are efficient and… see, impolite is the wrong word. Impolite, rude—implies malice, intent. There is no malice in the way they grab plates before people finish eating or remove still-full dishes. They just want to get their job done as quickly and with as little inconvenience to themselves as possible… and they don’t give a fuck about the customer.

The natives are inured. The Canadian at the table is a little appalled.

XXIV.

After the funeral, back at my aunt-sister-friend’s house, we talk about all sorts of things. The funeral, yes. My grandfather.

Family.

Love.

The proper way to make and serve schabowe.

We take turns talking to my dad when he calls. I can still hear the tears in his voice.

I send him the photographs I surreptitiously took at the funeral, with some caustic/loving commentary.

I don’t know if I understand my grandfather—or his relationship with my father—any more than I did before.

But maybe, I understand myself more. Just a little.

I tell my dad, “I’m glad I came.”

“I’m happy you like Poland,” he says.

Um. That’s not what I said.

XXV.

Dear Fatherland,

I think I don’t love you and I probably never will.

It’s not your fault.

I mean, this current fascist incarnation is certainly not helping.

But it wouldn’t be much different under a more progressive, enlightened regime. I would be less ashamed. But I still wouldn’t love you. I don’t really love my adopted Motherland either, although it fits me better. I feel less alien there than I do here.

“We are now citizens of the world, right?” the Internet stranger keeping me company in the middle of the night after my grandfather’s funeral texts again. “We are not just the future. We are the present.”

In the heart of the place where I was born, I find solace in a Turkish owned sheesha lounge, a Tower of Babel cacophony of languages around me.

You are where I was born and where my parents were born. Where my grandparents—all of them now—are buried.

But I am not yours and you are not mine.

I wonder if my children’s relationship with their motherland will be different. Tighter.

I guess… I hope not. People like me—we don’t start wars.

But that’s their future to navigate and write.

I’m writing my present now.

Goodbye, Grandfather.

I’m really glad I came,

xoxo

Marzena

PS This is the song with which my dad said goodbye to his father:

But I would drive 500 miles, and I would drive 500 more…

I.

Cinder, 13 (too grown up, not adult enough, don’t hurry, my love, stay a little boy longer, longer), wakes me up at 4:30 in the morning on a day on which I’ve set the alarm for 5:08 a.m. in anticipation of an eight-hour road trip. He has a sore throat, is sniffly, hasn’t slept all night, and it’s almost time to wake up, and he’s upset.

“I’m sick, is this going to ruin our trip to Kelowna?”

he asks, on the verge of tears (too grown up to dare to cry, not grown up enough to know that you never stop needing to). He’s been looking forward to this trip, counting down the days, for nine months—since the last one.

“Nothing is going to ruin our trip to Kelowna,”

I promise boldly.

“I’m going to dope you up and give you a bag of lozenges to suck on through the car ride. You will snooze and rest. And by the time you are on a beach with your friends, you will be fine.”

(Hey, sore throat and runny nose: We reject your reality and substitute our own.*)

603.2 kilometres, eight hours through the winding Rocky Mountain roads, three over-excited children, one under-slept driver.

“Jesus, Mom, are you stopping for coffee again? We’re never going to get there!”

“Do you want to live? If I don’t drink more coffee, we will really never get there.”

But we get there, we get there in record time, by 1 p.m., we are eating cake for lunch. The Posse is reunited, and my best girl and I are crying all over each other’s shoulders, and an hour later, seven kids are in Lake Okanagan, and two women are trying to say EVERYTHING to each other.

nbtb-500 miles

“How can you guys have so much to say to each other? You text every day!”

—that, from Flora, to me and Marie.

“How can you guys have missed each other so much? You Skype for hours every day!”

—that, from me to the Posse.

^^^And there, in an oversimplification that isn’t, you’ve got everything that’s wrong with cyber-tribes. They’re contact, connection… but they’re not enough.

II.

I can’t remember when I first met Marie. “Isn’t that funny?” I tell her. I do remember a handful of awkward first contacts, coffees, “playdates” (I fucking hate that phrase). I can’t quite remember, though, either what it was that drew me to her—nor the moment at which I realized we were friends, and life-long friends at that. (Neither one of us is particularly fond of strangers.) Maybe it was that her house, like mine, had a solidly “lived in,” messy look. That her kids were barefoot and always moving and even louder than mine (to be fair, there were more of them). Or that we could go together to the river for six, seven hours—and either talk for all six of those hours or be silent for most of the seven, and it was all good.

She taught me more about vulnerability and courage than any other human I’ve encountered on my journey so far.

III.

Stretched out in the hot sun while the kids play in the cold water, Marie and I talk about boys, girls, husbands, exes, currents, potentials, children, shoes, books, art, writing, work, the red dress or the blue dress, the meaning of life, ticks, fleas, “what do bed bug bites look like anyway?” (don’t ask) and how to get caterpillar gut stains out of white cotton (you can’t).

“Mooom! I’m hungry!”

“I’m bored!”

“Mom! He called me a…”

“They’re picking on me!”

“Mom, where’s my life jacket?”

“Mooooom, I need…”

nbtb-kids on raft

We feed them. Water them. Re-apply sunscreen. Deliver a lecture on big people taking care of little people, and on not being asses to each other, and then tell them to go the hell away. We have more talking to do.

IV.

She leaves me in charge of supper when she goes to work. I go all out:

nbtb-simple supper

Then, I work too:

nbtb-sleeping while i work

When she comes back, half the children are gaming, and the other half unconscious:**

nbtb-gamers and jumpers

(I mean sleeping. Really.)

(Half of seven is… well, I can’t chop one of them in half. You know what I mean. Fractions are not poetic.)

I pour wine. We talk some more. When the gamers interrupt us, looking for more snacks (“For goddsakke, do you guys NEVER stop eating?” “Never!” “Not true—we were just gaming for two hours with not a single snack break!”), we’re crying. Or laughing.

It’s hard to tell the difference.

Both are necessary.

V.

We’re still, by the way, texting. While she’s at work:

“Hey, the twins and Ender are riding skateboards in the house. Is that cool? What are your house rules around that?”

While she’s making sure the kids don’t drown and I’m getting coffee:

“If it’s not too late, honey in my cappuccino, k, babe? Oh, and remind me to tell ya what happened on Tuesday when…”

While I’m at the grocery store:

“For Chrissake, this is fucking British Columbia, why is there no local produce in this store?”

“Where are you?”

“Your local IGA.”

“Yeah, it sucks. You need to go to…”

VI.

We watch our kids love each other and love being with each other, and it makes us love them more—and each other more. “Do you think they will be friends, when they are 20? When they are 40?” she asks. We don’t know, of course.

But we do know we, Marie and I, are going to be friends when we’re 60. 78.*** I’m gonna give her rides on my Vespa scooter. She’s going to buy me costume jewelry at Value Village. We’re going to wear age-inappropriate bikinis on Okanagan beaches and talk about boys, girls, husbands, exes, currents, potentials, children, grandchildren, orthopedic shoes (can they be sexy? Or do we just need to stop trying?) and support stockings (oh, those varicose veins!), books, art, writing, work, the red dress or the blue dress, the meaning of life, people who look like their pets, dentures, people who piss us off (“maybe it’s her, maybe it’s too much Botox”), and whether lime green toe nail polish on your 76-year-old feet is a strike against ageism or a cry for help (“Independence, baby! Don’t you fucking dare tell me what I can or cannot do to my toes!”).

And when I’m too blind, to old to ride that Vespa, I’m gonna make my kids drive me that 603.2 kilometres… and they’re not going to ask why.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-girls on the town

FOOTNOTES (cause that’s how I roll)

*You may think I’m quoting Mythbusters’ Adam Savage here, but he’s actually quoting Paul Bradford in The Dungeon Master so there you have a quote within a quote within a quote…

**Aunt Augusta—you know Aunt Augusta, right? If you don’t, let me introduce you here: On yelling, authenticity, aspiration, and the usefulness of judgemental relatives-and-strangers—looks at this photo and pursues her lips.

“And you drove 603.2 km so they could play video games in the same room instead of via Skype why, exactly?” she says.

“I drove 603.2 km so that they could play video games in the same room instead of via Skype, exactly,” I smile. “Are you going to your bridge night tonight, Auntie? Yeah? Why, exactly?”

***I had my major life crisis at 38.5-39.2, from which I infer that I will shed this mortal coil at 77-78. I’m good with that. Right now, anyway.

And on that uplifting note, please enjoy this fabulous Proclaimers song:

 

“My children are my best friends.” “Really? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“My children are my best friends,” she says to me. And looks at me, intently, for approval.

I don’t know what to say. I’m horrified.

Actually, I do know what I want to say:

“Really? Jesus. What the hell’s wrong with you?”

But that’s not going to help her, at all, or build—preserve—our fledgling relationship. So:

“Really?” I say. “Hmmm. Mine are not. Not. At. All.”

And as she processes that with this preconception she has of me as an attachment parenting-homeschooling-fully-immersed-in-motherhood-24/7-and-loving-it guru (Ha! She does not know—I run awayI resentI live so very firmly in reality and not theory), I try to figure out how to give her the context. How to explain.

Here’s the thing, my little one, maybe I’ll say. (Little one, because in that moment, looking to me for approval and guidance, she wrecks the dynamic of our nascent relationship, and we are not friends, we cannot be, we are not equals, and that’s the thing about friends, is it not?) Here’s the thing, my little one, I love my children. Madly, unconditionally. I love spending time with them. I have rewritten almost all the spoken and unspoken rules of life, career, marriage to be their primary caregiver.

But they are not everything. They are not enough. And they should not be everything—enough—to any sentient adult.

(Forgive the use of “should.” You know I try not to tell you what to do. But in this case, little one, you should have adult friends and not burden your children with being everything to you. Burden. That’s the word… Let’s talk about it some more in a couple of paragraphs, but first, another “b” word…)

The thing about children—oh, dare I tell you this? OK, here goes—when they are little, little, peeing-pooping-eating-burping messes—the thing about that stage, that amazing-exhausting stage that takes so much out of you and in which you give so much to them, and in which they are utterly and completely your world—it is so… boring. I mean… Christ. Changing diapers? Necessary, yes. Exciting? No. Reading Margaret Wiseman Brown’s The Big Red Barn for the eleventh time that hour—a wonderful, sharing experience with your little one. No doubt. Intellectually stimulating for you?

For me, not so much. Not at all. And playing cars on the floor with your motor-skill-finding toddler? Fun for the first 10 minutes. After that… the excitement pales. Just a little…

There are whole swaths of parenthood, of the work you do as mother-father, that are mind-numbingly boring. That’s ok; it’s just the way it is—life is not supposed to be a Disneyland theme ride. We find fulfillment and joy in doing the boring for them: we find joy in their joy as they… discover gravity.

And we get exhausted and exasperated, too: how many stones do you need to throw into the goddamn river before we move on? Oh. Infinity. Right… and we learn to love some of those experiences, because we love them and see the world through their eyes. And we learn to use some of that time for ourselves (book in pocket, game on phone, an opportunity to text with an also-trapped-at-a-different-playground-why-didn’t-we-coordinate-this friend).

And we find things to do together that excite us both on some level (for me and mine, it’s always been water. Pools, lakes, rivers, puddles).

But… so much of what little kids do and want to do and need to do is… boring.

(It’s not for you? Really? I don’t, honestly, believe you. But if it really is—if every last aspect fascinates you—good on you. Open a daycare, preschool, playplace. But also—get yourself some adult friends, pronto. Because, boring is only the secondary “B” word. Remember the first one? It’s burden.)

My children are older now. The 12-year-old and I sometimes read the same books and watch the same movies and Netflix shows. He explains mind-blowing scientific developments to me (most of the time, I don’t understand them). We argue about the theories about the past and the future of universe. Being with him, talking with him is definitely not boring.

The near-10-year is reaching the beginning of that ever-so-challenging age for girls; the metamorphosis begins, and most bedtimes, she will crawl into bed beside me, and alternate between being a child and being a budding woman in the space of a sentence.

She asks me the most difficult questions. She stretches my capacity to think-reason-love to the utmost. “What is truth?” “Why don’t you believe in God?” “When would I be old enough to date a boy five years older than me?” “How do people know if they’re straight or gay?” “Why do people do drugs, and have you ever?” “What would you do if you had a friend who…” Never, ever boring.

Listen, little one, this is the most important thing: I am there for her. I listen. I do my best to answer… or to point her to another question. To reassure (I’m terrible at that, frankly), to support (getting better at that).

But she is not there for me. She cannot be there for me. I am her mother, and it is her right to burden me with whatever she needs to unload, share, explore, question.

She is my daughter, she is my child, she is my little one—and it is my responsibility to NOT dump my dark on her.

Not hers to carry. She is… little. And she is my daughter. Not my friend. My responsibility. Not my equal.

So. All this, I want to say. Can I? Will I? I chicken out:

“You know what? I’ll write you a post instead. And we can talk about it, argue about it, take it to pieces. You can tell me about the dark from which your arguments come from: why it is that you feel you want to be their best friend. Why are you putting them in the awful position of being yours? Do you resist making connections with equals, adults? What’s the story you tell yourself around that? Why are you, from our first encounter, making yourself smaller than me, and looking for my approval? Why do you want to give me that power? Who the hell am I that you should defer to me?

“I’ll make you angry, and you’ll respond, and call me on my tactics. And demand I tell you where my dark comes from. Why my connections with adults are what they are… what drives me, what scares, why and where I connect and why I run—and how that fits with how I define myself as a mother-person-writer-other. And maybe I’ll tell you so much, you will tell me, ‘OMG-Jane, I think you need a therapist.’ And maybe, I will say, ‘Probably more than one. ‘”

You can do that with a friend.

xoxo

“Jane“

NBTB-Best Friends

space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place

I.

You come into my house, and I am twirling, spiraling, dancing: half-delirious with joy and excitement. There are things I want to show you, share with you… Are you ready? I take your hand and dance with you through the hallway—walls, floors, baseboards!* —and into the place-space I really want to show you, the space most precious to me, my space.

I stand at its threshold, and beam. Spread my arms open and spin around: it’s tiny, but it’s mine, all mine, and it’s real-rebuilt-unspoilt. As I spin, I point to my little desk, and the couch-I-can-lounge-on-or-invite-friends-to-crash-on, and the rug no-child-or-dog-has-peed-on-yet, and the old, dusty Tiffany lamp Sean got me for a birthday way back when, and the little shelf of beloved-books that are there, within hand’s reach of me when I sit on the couch, and the window through which speckles of sunlight-and-outdoor-fairy-dust come in, and…

Mine, all mine, precious to me, and I am so happy, so happy to share it with you. Because I love you.

And you…

You look around, at this space-that-is-me, that is my heart-mind-made-into-place, and you say…

“Sort of a sloppy paint job, eh? I can see the spots you missed on the ceiling.”

And you say…

“Is that an Ikea sofa bed? I can’t stand Ikea furniture. And that colour… grey? What were you thinking?”

And you say…

“That Mexican blanket is so frayed and worn. Plus–taaacky! You should just throw it out.”

And you say…

“That secretary desk just doesn’t belong there at all.”

And you say…

“Why did you put a white rug there? You know it’s only going to get filthy, and you know you’ll never clean it.”

And you say…

“Is that the picture that was in your bedroom before? I’ve never liked it.”

You are in this space-that-is-me, my heart-mind-made-into-place, and you are violating me with every word.

I collapse into my grey—cheap, unfashionable, whatever, MINE, and it does what I need it to do—Ikea couch, wrap the frayed blanket (I LOVE IT) around me and turn away from you (I HATE YOU right now) and look at my shelf of beloved-books-that-always-make-me-happy and I reach out for one of them.

And you say…

“Jesus, are you still obsessed with Jane Austen? I don’t get how you can re-read those books over and over and over again. They’re so boring. Can’t you find something more interesting, more productive to do with your time?”

And our relationship is over. You never get to come into space-that-is-me, my-heart-mind ever again.

II.

You’ve never done this to me. You would never do this to me. As you read the story above—you were appalled, were you not? You thought, I know you did—what sort of terrible, terrible person would ever do that to a friend?

And yet… the average well-meaning, loving parent… does something like this… ALL THE TIME… to children.

ALL THE TIME.

III.

You come into their world, their moment, their space, their joy—and there they are, twirling, spiraling, dancing: half-delirious with joy and excitement. There are things they want to show you, share with you… Are you ready? They want to show you/tell you about their space-place-passion-joy, and it doesn’t matter what it is: an arrangement of sticks, a new graphic novel, a Youtube video that’s touched off something inside them, this cool thing they’ve built in Minecraft, a new Barbie doll outfit, what Sophia said at the playground. The way they’ve stacked their cars, rearranged their stuffies. Reorganized your kitchen cupboards.

It is a thing that is precious to them, and they are so happy, so happy to share it with you. Because they love you.

And you…

You look at what they are baring to you, and you say…

“What a mess!”

And you say…

“Did you spend the whole day watching Youtube videos again?”

And you say…

“I don’t get why you keep on reading crap like this.”

And you say…

“What a waste of time.”

And you say…

“Can’t you ever put your things away?”

And you say…

“I don’t understand why you hang out with her.”

And you say…

“Can’t you find something more interesting, more productive to do with your time?”

You are violating them with your every word.

And your relationship is over.

It won’t die the first time you do this. No. It will take a while.

But eventually… you will never get to come into space-that-is-them, their-heart-mind-space ever again.

IV.

Children give their heart-mind-space-place-come-within-me-be-inside-me-and-see-what-I-love… so freely. Don’t take it for granted.

Don’t wreck it.

Honour it.

You wouldn’t tell me—would you? —all those terrible things? (And if you would, baby—therapy. Now. Today; don’t wait for tomorrow.) You wouldn’t, of course you wouldn’t. Because you know you would violate me. With every word. And our relationship would be over, and my space-place-heart-mind closed to you forever.

Don’t do it to your children.

This soapbox moment brought to you by my own need for eternal vigilance over the tendency to treat our children worse than we would treat friends or strangers.

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-space-that-is-me

*If you’re new here, you might need to know… there was this flood: unLessons from the flood: we are amazing and After the flood: Running on empty, and why “are things back to normal” is not the right question. And now, 10.5 months later, I have my space back (well, almost, almost, any day now…), and am reimagining it. And it is quite, quite wonderful.

And when I get a cheap grey IKEA couch in there, and my frayed Mexican blanket, and a rug no-child-or-dog-has-peed-on-yet, and my most-beloved-books… it will be even better. And when I invite you into it, invite you in because I love you–you will look at it through MY eyes before you say anything. Because… you love me. And want to understand how I feel about this space-that-is-me, understand me–not hear yourself talk.

Of course you will.

Now. Go do the same thing when your child invites you in…

On the delicate art of running away… and always coming back

I.

I am still, hot, languid. Utterly relaxed. I am fully, completely obligation-free. I am—did I mention? Still. Zen. And no one is budging me, no one needs me.

I am bliss. But no, that’s not right. Not bliss. I am just… still. I am paused. I am not doing. I am barely being.

I am—I was, for I am now back, but more on that later—I am “run away.”

(You might think I should have written “I have run away.” But I haven’t done anything. I AM. I am run away.)

II.

I’ve reached that terrifying age when, instead of wedding invitations and “We’re pregnant!” announcements, our friends are separating, divorcing. That one-in-two statistic? Playing out, in full force, among my friends, my loves. Sometimes, it makes sense (“How on earth did those two ever get together and stay together long enough to make two children?”). Sometimes, it hurts as much as if it were my own closest relationship being torn asunder (“But… but… you two are so… but I love you both! No!”).

Sometimes, they agonize over the decision, discuss, torment, suffer together for months and years before ending it.

But sometimes, he, or she, runs away, leaving the other partner, the family, in shock.

Runs away, and not metaphorically. He doesn’t come back from a business trip. He ends the marriage, the relationship, the family… by email.

Her friends rally around her. Condemn him (it’s not always him, of course; sometimes, it’s her. But in my life in recent years, it’s been mostly him). Show their unconditional love and support for her by unexamined anger and malice against him. “Rat-fuck bastard.” “Dickweed.” “Good men, sane men don’t do this.”

I go home and cry in my husband’s arms.

Because, you see—I get it. I get the desire to run away. And I get how, if the nature of this most intimate of relationships is such that you cannot articulate your (past-and-present) frustration, your (in-the-moment) unhappiness, your (intermittent-but-it’s-been-here-much-too-long) angst, your children-are-exhausting-the-house-is-killing-me-work-sucks-life-is-a-slog-right-now-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-about-it feelings… if you cannot articulate all that to the person you come home to, sleep with… one day, you will snap. And run away, fully. And not come back.

III.

In a life full of obligations, in a house full of three young children, I am mistress of the five-second, five-minute run away. I turn my back on the buttsacks ransacking the living room and screaming at each other, and give my attention fully, completely to the taste of chocolate. To that first, scalding, fabulous sip of coffee. I disappear into the bathroom. The bedroom. Put all the kids in the car… and then don’t get in for a while. Sell them to a neighbour and go for a walk alone. Lie very still in the sun while they run on the periphery of my vision, awareness…

Sometimes, I run away without actually physically moving. Just into my head, into my thoughts.

“Mom! You’ve spaced out again! Come back!”

I come back. I always come back.

But—I come back, willingly, only because I know how to run away… Does that make sense? I acknowledge my need to run away. And I fill it.

Five seconds. Five minutes. Easy.

Five hours—I need to plan for. Carve out. Insist on, when obligations get too intense. A full life—and a life with children, with family, with meaningful work, is always full, no matter what else you add on to it—is full of things that must be done. For me, running away for five hours here and there—that’s something that must be done too. It must happen.

IV.

Being present and being “in the moment” is all the rage in parent-lit and pop-psych right now. But it’s just as important to recognize, I think, that being sane requires being absent sometimes. And respecting, feeding that need in yourself.

If you don’t—if you deny it—when you snap—and you will snap—and you run away—you will not come back.

V.

I am, for the first time since I’ve had children, run away for… seven days. For seven days, I am still. On pause. Totally obligation free. Absent-from-children-marriage-house-work. Present-in-self. And sometimes, even not really present-in-self. Just… fully, completely, gloriously run away. Absent.

(I was going to run away to write. Instead, I sleep. I am still.)

VI.

I come back.

I come back—so here’s the thing—I come back NOT re-energized, not full of pep-and-zeal-and-new-plans. Better. I come back with “still” within me. I infect my children, my husband, my neighbours with it.

Not this still: My life is still busy. My house is still a disaster (my four-year-old asks his six-year-old friend if their contractors are also “incompetent m@th#rf*ck%rs” and I turn brick red as my elder two children waggle their eyebrows at me… “Where did he learn that from, huh, Mom, huh, Mom?”). My existential angst is still here (always will be).

This still: When I need to be fully present—I am, and I can give that freely, un-resentfully. Gratefully, even. When being present becomes fucking exhausting, too much—that five second, five minute run away makes me… find that still. Pause.

And—most importantly, perhaps—lets me come back quickly.

Reminds me, also, of how critical that five hour run away is, and to not neglect it, no matter what.

VII.

I’ve always know this about myself. That I need to withdraw, disappear, be absent from whatever/whoever it is that most often demands my presence (attachment parents, take note). I’ve (usually) done this, guilt-free. Joyfully. Occasionally, with a degree of almost-wanton abandonment.

My life partner has known this about me too, even before I fully-truly articulating it for him.

But here’s the funny thing: despite seeing, honouring and facilitating my run-aways for me… he felt guilty about his desire, his need to do the same.

There is nothing unique about my desire and my practice of being run away (or yours). There is nothing unique about his guilt (or yours). Worse, there is nothing unique about our—and yours—inability to articulate this need… never mind to our closest loves, but even to ourselves.

And if you cannot articulate your (past-and-present) frustration, your (in-the-moment) unhappiness, your (intermittent-but-it’s-been-here-much-too-long) angst, your the-children-are-exhausting-the-house-is-killing-me-work-sucks-life-is-a-slog-right-now-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-about-it feelings… if you cannot articulate all that to yourself… never mind the person you come home to, sleep with… one day, you will snap. And run away, fully. And not come back.

(“Didn’t you say something pretty much exactly like that already?”
“Indeed, I did. I say it again. I don’t want you to miss it.”)

VIII.

I am back.

I will need to run away—I will run away—I will BE run away—again. For five seconds, five minutes, five hours. When finances and circumstances permit, five days, maybe more (but first, the Daddy gets to run away for a longer stretch; it is only fair).

Because I know how to run away, I will always come back.

How about you?

Art of Running Away NBTBxoxo

“Jane”

P.S. My friend Sarah at Left Brained Buddha turns almost 40 this week, and meditates on this age and stage in a lovely way. Have a read: This is Almost 40.

Life lessons from large families

I (accidentally) zipped through Meagan Francis’ Table for Eight last week, a book about living as a large family in a small family world (irrelevant aside: ended up on my Kobo because I thought it was a “big cook” cookbook–you know, recipes up-sized for large groups?). We’re not really a large family–three kids, two adults, one small, but troublesome dog–but most of the time, I have an extra kid or two or three in tow or in the house–and many of the families we spend most of our time with are three or four or more kid families, so there were many parts of the book that resonated with me on some level. And some parts that I experienced purely as a voyeur, sometimes rather glad it wasn’t me having to figure out how to sort eight kids between three bedrooms… and sometimes regretful that Ender won’t have a sibling close in age to bunk with.

My favourite line from the book:

“Surrender to motherhood … but don’t give yourself up entirely.”

I found that quote, and Francis’ entire “Time for Mom” chapter quite in synch with my thinking around family time, self-actualization and family harmony.

Another tidbit that really resonated with me (and then had me pondering, “But what does this say about me, really?”) was this:

Part of the way I keep my life simple is by gravitating toward emotionally healthy, stable people who don’t pick fights with me or each other. … The way I look at it is this: I spend a lot of time with emotionally immature people: my children. They’re still growing and learning about social interaction, and it’s my job to help them. I just don’t have the time to deal with emotionally immature grown-ups, too!

Yup.

(Although, I have to confess, I sometimes see this as a character failing in myself. Am I just too selfish and intimacy-averse to enter into your latest drama? To offer you the support you crave? I don’t know. Perhaps. But as a result, I’m pretty balanced, stable and undrained myself, so if that’s what selfishness looks like, so be it.)

The best lesson from the book, which took me almost 10 years and three kids to figure out:

I was at a family party where the food was laid out buffet-style… I filled a plate for myself, sat down, and ate, and then called them to the tabe.

“What kind of a mother feeds herself before her children?” my grandmother asked.

“A full one,” I retorted.

I’m not extrapolating this one to anything other than food: read nothing else into it, but take the food lesson as it is. It took me almost 10 years of cold coffee, half-chewed food, food thrown into my mouth as it was leaving the table, after-thought meals that weren’t really meals, to learn to eat well, regularly–and often before feeding the children. Now I eat first whenever I can (with babies, nurslings and toddlers, it’s not always possible, but one must seize the moment). I eat well. And everyone’s happier. (Including the thinner and more energetic me.)

English: Come on Kids! I know where to get som...

Interest piqued about Table for Eight, but not sure if it’s for you? Here’s a review of the book from the website Lots Of Kids, and here’s Francis’ blog, The Happiest Mom.