Like you do

I wrote about my mother first; this must, necessarily, be about my father.

Why is it the men who raise us must inevitably, inescapably shape the ones — friends or otherwise — we allow to ourselves to love later? How long have we been musing on this overly familiar pattern already? How can it still be such a clever trick?

mirror

Windows, or mirrors? (2 February 2016)

Distant, withholding, critical — sometimes thoughtlessly cruel — impossible to please men. Men talking up all their pride in you, while doing so little to demonstrate it, as if words alone are enough to swallow up such yawning absence of genuine action. I could only grow to constantly question any sort of love now, after being raised, shaped — groomed, even — to find myself wanting in my father’s eyes first. He left, went off far away, then wanted me to explain why he was alone. I don’t know, Dad; I can’t even tell you why I’m alone. You decided you belonged nowhere, and with no one, and so that became my lot in life, too.

Though I suppose I could. I could have written my younger self a letter. I might have said: Watch out, watch for all the ways he looks to control you. They are shaping you now, have already shaped you, will shape you always, no matter how much distance ends up between you. He does love you, but there are conditions, ever-moving goalposts, impossible standards. All of these will trip you up, again and again.

I might say…

You were the one who survived — though he never told you this, you had to lie to your mother to even learn that much; the other family who died, and you, the sole surviving child — but simply continuing to breathe, taking up some small space in the world, this is not all that will be required of you, of course. You will never ask to know more.

His pride is a performance, only expressed to strangers; to you, there is only more criticism, more questions to put you on the defensive, more requests that you justify yourself, again and again. Watch carefully, before you begin to feel you must justify yourself to your own mind, too.
You will miss school, your student years, sometimes: the only time and space in which, and audience for whom, you have ever managed to exceed any expectations. Elsewhere, you will only ever fall short. All that performative dismay over so much imagined potential.
You will grow up, and there will be other men, and you will not be told the reasons, you will only see their effects. Watch closely for all they hide and take from you, and how relentlessly they try to test your determination to grasp those unreachable rewards. Sometimes it will be merely distance and poor timing, or the fear of interrupting fantasy with reality. Other times, you simply aren’t attractive or interesting enough, when you are of notice at all, though they may pretend otherwise, for a while. (This is why you will wonder, always, whether they mean one single word of it. Do not expect them to understand; they won’t.) With a few, they will shower you with all manner of compliments and admiration, but only when they don’t know you well enough to know better; it’s no coincidence the most effusive are the ones who know the least about you.

And sometimes, you will be close, closer than you could’ve imagined… Until you aren’t. You’ll turn to find your place papered over so neatly it’s almost as if you were never there. There’s nothing quite like the feeling, like that of your insides being slowly scooped out, of watching the shine come off yourself in someone else’s eyes. (What happened? You’re still you. Where did all that brightness go?) You may never know why, but you’ll see for yourself just how dull you look to them now.

Your seemingly innate inability to accept compliments or praise, the withholding men you’re most drawn to, your hawkish loneliness, the secrets you keep…
Your want to be understood, to be seen, to not be so easily forgotten, to be accepted, to belong; all that wanting, take care to familiarize yourself with that ache…
Wanting, wanting, wanting: All you will know is wanting.

No angle of your face will ever be beautiful enough, no arrangement of your body desirable enough, no amount you give adequate enough; all that straining to be…
Enough, enough, enough: You will never be enough. Don’t forget.

 

I might say — or might have said — those things. But then again, I might not.

Advertisements

Daily Prompt: Provoke

I had just finally managed to calm down from driving around, going nowhere, trying to get the rest of the unexpected bloodletting over within the too-familiar, protected, isolated confines of my car, only to come home, check my email, and find a message from my mother. It had, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with anything on my mind at this moment, but simply seeing her name highlighted in my inbox like a beacon prompted me to burst right back into tears. At least all my mascara for the day is already gone by now; I still hate how puffy my face gets.

When I was younger, and clashing the most violently (emotionally and verbally, that is) with my mother, I was extremely determined to never become like her. This is, of course, one of the ultimate teenage tropes that’s likely existed since the dawn of humanity, but when you are young and feeling everything at your highest intensity, it feels both very rebellious and extremely important. (I imagine this is why I, along with so many others, was so unexpectedly moved by Lady Bird, recently. The tone of those mother-daughter fights was so exacting and familiar — coupled with the very pointed and accurate outsider rendering of what it’s like to grow up on the poor side surrounded by so many bizarrely exotic rich kids — I felt deeply shaken by it.)

I would not be like her. I was positive — growing up under the burdens laid on a gifted child, always being told about all the great things I would supposedly someday do (none of which have ever come to pass, of course; do they ever?) — that I was smart and resourceful enough to make sure of this.

In reality, of course, I get many of my best qualities from my mother. I certainly inherited her self-sacrificing nature, particularly when it comes to bending over backwards for the sake of those I care about, whether or not that’s even the good or right thing to do in a given situation; the general lack of a vetting system to go with it comes from her, too. But that is a stowaway risk inescapably bound to big-heartedness, and accepting that, as I’ve grown older — about both her and myself — has become easier. What I struggle with more, these days, is forgiveness. Not of her, either; no matter how much we fought back then, or how crazy she could drive me, I’m old enough now to recognize she sacrificed as much as she possibly could simply to protect and elevate my life, in the hopes that it could be greater, happier, more fulfilling than hers. (She continues to find ways to do this, even now that I’m in my thirties.)

She did not want me to struggle, like her. She did not want me to be trapped, like her. She did not want me to end up alone, like her.

Unfortunately, I also recognize how badly I failed her, in those hopes, completely across the board.

hands2

My mother’s hands (2013).

Younger me was certain I would make it further in my education, and knew it was expected of me. I did not: my mother only ever took one college course (I believe it was French, at UCLA), during her earliest years in California, and never finished. I dropped out of (community) college a mere 3 credits (a single online course) away from graduating. Arguably, one could say that’s even worse. I wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think.

Younger me was adamant I would never end up stuck in a soul-sucking office job like hers, constantly fighting to meet the demands and satisfy the flighty, shallow whims of an endless string of horrible bosses, as she’s now done for over 30 years. Once it became clear, in the past decade or so, that the professional avenue she had chosen was nowhere near as “safe” or protected as she (and so many others) had always believed, I certainly was not happy, but some small, ugly little part of me did feel at least slightly, quietly justified in never accepting a similar job, though by now I’ve been working over half my life. (There were other reasons: it’s not work that I’m suited to, I’m far less flexible in what I can tolerate at work and separating it from my overall mental health than she is., etc..) I had stuck to my guns, and always (where possible, which it sometimes wasn’t) taken jobs that I wanted to do, whether they paid well or not (and they usually didn’t), that allowed me to keep my creativity alive. At the very least, I was never anyone’s secretary; I had drawn that line in the sand, and would never cross it. I knew she felt regret at having given up on art and writing when she was younger, before fully devoting her career to administrative work, however well compensated it might have been. I thought to myself: I will not have those regrets.

Does that make it ironic, then, that I see now that I did in fact end up just like her, merely in the one way I could not have anticipated? I’m sure it does. I struggle to stay afloat just as much as she does, so we’ll (perhaps generously) call that one a wash. I am trapped, like her, though not by my work. I am alone, like her, and in almost exactly the same way. And I suspect, if I were ever to admit this to her, that would be the one thing she would have wished the hardest for me to avoid. But I didn’t, of course. I am trapped by, and remain alone because of, nearly the very same thing that she was, and still is. Even if there is no possible defense for such a thing, I’m still astonished by the breadth of the blind spot I had been operating under for so long. I genuinely believed that, in achieving what I have, I had escaped what she wished for me never to have to bear.

I’ve achieved plenty, too. I’m still managing to keep a roof over my head. I have a stable job (much more so than hers, which at this point I just wish I could share somehow; she is reaching an age where I seriously fear where, or even if, she might find more solid ground ever again), and it’s one that I genuinely enjoy. I’m embarking on an exciting and creative new journey, too; one that feels very much like the culmination of something I was meant to do long ago, but had forgotten. I love my city, and my friends. I have done a good job of making my own home in the world. I have support and rewarding relationships around me. I have yet, still, to have a bad day this year. Even today, I can’t log as a bad day, because I seem to really have rescued myself from whatever hole I kept burying myself in last year; it was just (deeply) upsetting. But I’ve gotten through it, I’ve finally stopped crying, and tomorrow will be fine, too. I trust, finally, that I haven’t lost anything irreplaceable; only my one remaining secret, and a considerable chunk of my already rather small stores of pride.

But despite all of this, I was not spared sharing her most enduring pain, in ending up caught by my own. And I do struggle with forgiving myself, even now. I don’t know how to forgive all the arrogant and shortsighted assumptions I made about her, and myself, back then, knowing now how wrong they really were. (Yes, I was young and dumb. I’m not sure how adequate an excuse that is.) I don’t know how to forgive myself for expressing things I never meant to let out into the world, which I could not protect myself from, any better than she could protect me, and not for lack of furious trying on both our parts. Funnily enough, I am now the very same age that she was when she was either doubling down, or realizing and accepting it was already too late; I know now how she must have felt. Five years is a very long time to punish yourself for anything, no matter how foolish or pointless that thing may be, but that did not stop me, and still does not stop me even now. I am, after all, much more likely to cry out of anger or frustration than I am out of sadness, though in this case it’s that awful mix of all three. I suppose what this all means is that, as much as I’ve already been inspired by her tremendous continued survival, I must continue to look to her for understanding how, exactly, one lives with themselves this way.

I don’t hate myself. I’m all right. Often, I’m quite happy. It’s just… I genuinely believed, for a long time — in part, I see now, because she did — that I could’ve been so much better.

I did want to be so much better, Mom. You had only me, and you deserved better. I know you wanted that, too. But I also know how little wanting or hoping has anything to do with what you get, in the end.

And I am sure, at least, she would not need me to remind her of this, either. She already knows.

 

via Daily Prompt: Provoke