One of my favorite poetry writing exercises is making a list of the items in the room you’re sitting in. It sounds mundane and potentially uninspiring but I’ve found that as your list grows and your mind’s eye cracks open further, short naked matter-of-fact nouns evolve into more elaborate emotive descriptions. By the end, you have captured the very essence of your own perception in this particular moment. You learn a lot about how you see yourself and your life and what you’re trying to create for yourself. Acting as a part of a larger complex story, each item that you’ve chosen to nest with carries some significance, a memory, a telling contradiction.
So why has this self-illuminating strategy come back into my thoughts? In my last post, I mentioned a couple of the lessons I’ve learned from my parents. The teachings from my dad come in very vivid pockets of memory, very specific encapsulated events, each one easily it’s own beginning-to-end poem. My mother’s teachings are however, far more complex; rather than quick instances, they run like a spider web on the inside of my skull attaching to every area of my brain, remaining more abstract, sometimes incomprehensible. I felt that perhaps meditating on a list of her lessons would create the complex story that is our mother-daughter relationship, would provide the most accurate recollection and in turn, as it does with the items in one’s room, become more vivid and concrete and of course, likely painfully illuminating. Upon reading my last post, my mother was a bit upset that I didn’t seem to have other lessons of hers to share. That wasn’t exactly the point of that post, but I’m up for that challenge. Unfortunately, when my mother inadvertently asks me to fulfill her needs in some way, I think it’s much like asking a genie for a wish; the outcome is not exactly what she might have been hoping for but it’s real all the same and in the end, she was the one that taught me to be this brave.
Like many children, I went through the phase of being angry with my mother for some of the things she inadvertently taught me that ultimately proved false. But I have grown up enough to realize that she is not to blame for any of these; we are all products of circumstance and there is no blame to attribute when we are all bound to situation. My mother was a single mom, working long hours and holidays in the predominantly male workforce delivering for Federal Express. The way she coped with working in a less than nurturing environment was admittedly not particularly graceful. She came home late, exhausted and infuriated. All she ever wanted was to have kids and have a family and here she was, with only one child she would bear, a job that would consume her physically and mentally, and little energy left to be the present parent she wanted to be. I hardly blame her for the lessons I learned in between the ones she really meant to impart and after going through this process, I have truly learned to embrace all of my childhood with her. When other circumstances changed, it was always the two of us, which is to say we had the typical mother-daughter relationship that sometimes looked like bickering and sometimes like dancing. It still does but I like to think acknowledging it for what it is gives it the power of real legacy.
Hang in there this is a long one but the effort I like to think is worth it. Also, having gone through this meditation, which has been a lifetime in the making has given me a lot. After reading this, I would love to hear from anyone interested in accepting this challenge, again it’s a long one and quite intimate. Make a list, the lessons that your parental figure(s) taught you, whichever one that you feel most influenced by or are inspired to contemplate for the moment. The next blizzard you get East Coasters, do it; I know you’ll have time.
In this list, you’ll learn about my mom but more than likely, mostly about me. This is the point during our date that you are forced to flip through the old album of my baby pictures, uninhibited and naked splashing in the tub. Here is my list-poem for my mother:
Because I Said So
1 – How to Nest:
how to wash dishes;
how to finish all the food on my plate no matter how long it takes;
how to vacuum after you dust, always starting at the top, working thoroughly down to the lower rungs of every dining room chair;
how to mow the lawn in a smooth well planned pattern from the edges inward, weaving close between trees without hitting stones and roots, be wary of the shed and the propane tank;
how to dote on houseplants;
how to love animals and know when to let them go;
how to start sewing projects and put them all unfinished in a bag in the closet;
how to cut hair;
how to shop without buying anything;
how to shovel snow;
how to enjoy a good nap;
how to watch too much tv, feel guilty about it and keep doing it.
2- How to Carry Yourself:
how to act a genius and judge others as useless if they don’t take their studies seriously;
how to be determined, practice until perfection, to prime yourself to someday “save the world for women;”
how to pretend to be a rebel;
how to hate your job and pretend you don’t;
how to project a strong, independent tough woman persona with leather chaps and a motorcycle candy-coating the vulnerable jelly-filled sensitive inside;
how to not cry no matter how sad you are;
how to hold onto your anger inside until it purges itself inappropriately towards the person closest to you
how to be a victim in order to gain sympathy and/or feel justified in holding a grudge;
how to mistrust men;
how to hold other people accountable for your feelings;
how to work hard despite all obstacles;
how to make the best out of being punished;
how to entertain oneself;
how to overreact;
how to worry;
how to bite your nails when you’re nervous;
how to intimidate people with a harsh stare;
how to laugh with all my teeth and squeak when you’re trying to suck in more air to keep laughing;
how to internalize criticism and bitterness and remain outwardly agreeable;
how to not care too much about your appearance;
how to care too much about your appearance;
how to shower and change your underwear everyday;
how to argue and win with the tone of actual knowledge in the absence of actual fact;
how it’s never too late to do something you’ve always wanted to;
how lying is bad unless it’s small and you’re good enough that you can get away with it;
how to cooperate, lean into the turn with the driver when you’re on the back of the bike and stay completely still when riding on gravel;
how to drive under pressure.
3- How to Love:
how to appreciate simple rituals together, i.e. having lunch at Denny’s and going shopping;
how to bake cookies and cakes, carve pumpkins, trim Christmas trees and blow out birthday candles;
how to hold your children responsible for your success;
how to hold your significant other responsible for your feelings without telling them what they are;
how to be devoted beyond measure, i.e. she chased me around the bathroom for hours with a razor blade to cut off a wart on my foot as I shrieked with terror until I convinced her to let me do it myself and of course, it didn’t hurt at all;
how to show love by buying people presents;
how to show love with simple tasks and the element of surprise, i.e. when I realized she was Santa, I snuck downstairs one year and slept behind the couch to decorate the living room in the middle of the night;
how to be silly, i.e. blaring Celtic music and manically step dancing in the living room until our faces were red and snorting with laughter;
how to cherish the stories of your ancestors;
how to dream about who you are.
Most important lesson I ever learned from my mother: how to be hurt, survive, be flawed and still be able to love.
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