Wednesday, May 28

Independent. Stubborn. Learning from my mother.

Independent. Stubborn. I've been thinking about these two words and what they represent. Rather, I've been thinking about how they are represented by an individual's behavior.

My mother was always an independent person. And stubborn. At least my perception of her when I was a child was that she was independent. Fearless. And yes, stubborn. I remember her seeming to blaze her own trail regardless of what others might think. I thought of her as being her own woman, not cowing to expected behaviors. Of course, I'm a child of the 60s and 70s so the rules were getting muddied and bent and broken anyway, but women of my mother's generation were brought up by women of her mother's generation.

My mother's mother. Her parents were born in Hungary; she was born in Pittsburgh. Steadfast people. Strong, peasant stock. Gypsy stock my grandmother claimed, and with some breathless whispered pride, I might add. My grandmother, we called her GranLaurie, was most definitely fearless and cared little about peoples' perceptions.

GranLaurie was married five times. Her first husband, my mother's father, was Lithuanian. And, like her, a Jew. He and his family fled Lithuania before the October Revolution, or so the story goes. He died when my mother was in her teens. I've seen a couple of pictures of him. He was a striking man. Jet black wavy hair. Handsome. The best picture of him is astride a horse. He is seated bareback and the horse was reared up. My mother claims he was in the czar's cavalry before he and his family escaped to the States. From the picture, it's clear he was a horseman.

Though my mother was born in New York, she grew up in California. It was there my grandparents divorced and it was there GranLaurie met and married her second husband, Joe. My mother tells of him coming from Spain, which is possibly true. I've done some research on Joe's family and there is a strong Mexican connection. I love that. I wish I'd met Joe.

When I was 9, my grandmother moved to Florida. She lived a few blocks from our house. I was able to stop at her house on my way home from school. I got a glimpse of independence vs. stubbornness over some cookies. My grandmother would give me cookies after school. Of course, she did! That's what grandmothers do. My mother would fuss that the cookies spoiled my appetite for supper. Yea, not really because this kid liked (and likes) to eat. I realized much later it was territorial. So my grandmother would leave the cupboard door open and if I happened to have a cookie or two, well, what can you do? Kids will be kids.

My grandmother worked into her late 80s. She had a part-time job. It was clerical, but she loved it and the people in the office loved her. It gave her, yes, independence. I remember visiting her. She insisted she borrow and move a rollaway bed to her apartment for me and my friend. She wouldn't wait until we got there to help. Independent? Yes. Stubborn? Absolutely.

"I can do it myself." It's a line I've used a lot. It's a line I heard a lot. And often with that grim clench of teeth. Independent? Yes. Stubborn. Probably.

My beloved grandmother is long gone. My mother is ill. Struggling with dementia. And because of the dementia she is struggling with wanting to be independent and yet not being able to be independent. She is stubbornly striving to be independent.

Over the years I've had cause to reflect on my life's intersections with my mother's. It's a much longer tale to explain why I skedaddled as soon as I could and had precious little to do with my mother even while seeking her approval and love until I at last gave up on either and realized I needed neither from her. Long ago I realized that her trail-blazing was, in fact, trail-blazing of her own kind but she was also pursued by her own demons of needing to be accepted, of wanting more even though I'm not sure she ever knew what she really thought she wanted.

Last week I broke down. After weeks of visiting with my mother and stepfather, trying to help care for them in some ways; trying to convince them, coax them, encourage them that a move to assisted living was the best move, my siblings and I were able to get them moved. Not without drama nor controversy. Last week, after the move, my mother was so angry at me she would not acknowledge me. In her eyes, I am the one taking away her independence.

Last week, after I got home, I came down with a wretched cold. I felt it starting on the day I was heading home on Wednesday. By Thursday I was feeling miserable. By Friday I was just sick. A friend offered to take care of me. Small things. Making tea. Bringing me some food. I said I could manage.

"I can do it myself."

And it struck me that I was being stubborn rather than independent.

There is no shame in accepting help. There is no shame in admitting one needs help. It does not mean one is weak.

But there is, I know, I can feel, a fine line between being independent and being stubborn.

There is a range of synonyms for the word "stubborn": obstinate, headstrong, strong-willed, pigheaded, contrary, recalcitrant (one of my favorite words), inflexible, uncompromising. In some situations, some of these words are positive.

When I broke down, it was from exhaustion and from being sick. But it was also from the realization that I don't want to be my mother. I don't want to be so proudly independent that I transition to a stubbornness that's unwilling to accept help, that's unwilling to acknowledge a need for help.

I know some will say that perhaps her behavior is because of her disease, and undoubtedly that's true. But she's always been stubborn and, I've begun to see, perhaps not yet clearly, that perhaps she's been more willful than independent.

I come from a line of strong women. I know that, and I'm proud of that. As I think of my grandmother and my mother, I think of their strengths and their weaknesses and how their characters have formed and informed my own.

Independence. Being self-reliant, self-sufficient can be a good thing. Being able to think for one's self is also a good thing. But I like my friends and I want to see more of my friends. I am challenged, encouraged, energized, supported, and more by my friends.

As I reflect on my mother's challenges just now, I think about how I can help her be as independent as she can possibly be and yet still be open to that support and encouragement that friends and family can offer, especially in times of need and difficulty. I think about the lessons I'm learning to be less stubborn, as I'm learning that I don't always have to do whatever it is myself.

I know I can rely on myself. I'm just glad I don't always have to.

Friday, May 16

"But I want more." Really?

This sentence has been banging around in my head for a couple of days. It doesn't matter who said it and the tone of voice doesn't really matter either, although it was kind of a whine.

"But I want more."

But. This word introduces an contrast or an objection. When I talk about writing an argument paper, I remind writers to think about the "Yes, but. . . " readers are inevitably thinking. Starting a sentence or thought with the word "but" is a strong objection or contrast and says, "I might have heard what you just said and I'm not really listening because I hope to change your mind or convince you otherwise."

I. This first person personal pronoun is easy and says "It really is all about me."

Want. A friend of mine once said something about not needing to buy more shoes. I joked with her that when it comes to shoes, "need" has nothing to do with it. I'm certainly not the first to note that "need" and "want" are not the same thing. Want, however, is an interesting word in that it can mean a desire for something or a lack or deficiency of something. In this case, the usage is the first meaning of a desire for something.

More. "I've had some and I feel or believe it's not enough."

A friend of mine borders on the ascetic. She makes choices about how much and what. The reason doesn't matter because she's always been like that. She has a clear sense of enough being enough. Because of her, I've found myself thinking differently about what I want and what I need.

Sure, I could have one more of whatever because I'd like to have it, but do I really need it? There are times I can justify another of something for business or other reasons, but I do have to be careful that I'm not lying to myself.This is not a matter of counting calories or carbs if the whatever is food. Do I really need another pair of shoes? No. Do I really need another gadget? No.

I've found that I'm starting to enjoy challenging myself to the want vs. need discussion. Sometimes I tell myself that I don't care, and there are times I insist on the "more" and find I don't really enjoy it.

So maybe I think I want more, but maybe not.

Wednesday, May 14

Complicated relationships: mothers and daughters

The fight was over the location of a pizza. I offered to get the frozen pizza from the freezer in the garage, forgetting they had a small chest freezer. She got angry that I didn't look in the right place. Words were exchanged and then the blow landed. Her left hand. She's right handed so I was impressed by the sting though that big ol' wedding ring helped add to the power of the impact. She tried to hit me again but I was able to grab her arms and prevent that. I could see the surprise in her eyes. I made it clear that hitting me was no longer an option.

I was angry. I didn't say anything I've regretted, but I think the exchange alerted her to a situation she hadn't considered. And when I threatened to leave she became conciliatory. We apologized. We talked. The damage, however, is done. In fact, it is compounded because it brought to the fore that which I'd left behind years ago.

Two people today told me at different times that they know she loves me. I had a flashback to a moment when I was in the 6th grade and she said to me through clenched teeth that she had to love me but she didn't have to like me. It's hard to forget something like that.

It wasn't until I was nearly 40 that I realized I really don't need her love, or what passes for love from her. I'm well aware of her own complicated relationship with her own mother. I'm well aware of how much she resented the relationship I had with her mother. I'm well aware of many things, though I know I'm equally clueless of others and I have to be careful not to be smug about what I think I know.

I'd like her respect, but I don't need it. I truly don't care about her love because I know there are others who love me, truly love me. I want to honor her and respect her because she is my mother, because of what she has taught me about difficult and complicated relationships.

Some years ago I met a woman who is an amazing individual. She has great kids and a great marriage. But her story is horrifying and yet the woman she is, the mother she is, the wife she is was shaped by how she chose to survive her relationship with her mother. And I do mean survive. She rose about that relationship and experience; she chose not to let it define her. She chose not to be a victim and not to play the martyr. Because of my brief friendship with her, I've been able to put my own complicated relationship with my mother in perspective, and I've learned to try not to be defined by her perspective of me; I've learned not to be the victim nor to play the martyr.

What I realize from this is that mother-daughter relationships are complex, even the really good relationships. Mine is not normal, but I believe it's not as abnormal as some might think. What I realize is that we learn a great deal about ourselves because of and from our mothers. What I realize is that I can continue to shape the kind of person I can be and want to be because of my mother, because of what is similar and different about us, because of the person I am because of her and in spite of her.

Tuesday, May 13

In difficult times, we learn who we are

I'm a reader. I read all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Because I'm a reader, I've "experienced" all kinds of difficulties. More importantly, I've come through those difficulties with the characters.

Our individual scale for difficulty differs, of course. But my difficulties, no matter their scale nor magnitude, are my difficulties. They're the ones with which I have to cope.

As I navigate my emotions and as I try to make sense of my options, I also pay attention to those who have gone through similar experiences or how those around me cope with their own difficulties.

I've learned a lot about myself. Some of it I like; some of it I want to change because I hear a certain tone of voice or attitude I don't think is very nice or kind.

What I have also learned about difficulties is that the degree or scale doesn't matter when you're in it. What might not seem particularly overwhelming to someone else might consume you. It's the undercurrents and the stuff that we make sure no one else sees that can trip us up. It's the sense of the never-ending that drives us to those jags of gulping tears or wanting to scream, just scream, at the top of our lungs. It's the sense of the helpless that keeps us awake, that yields the throbbing headache, that triggers the feeling of panic mixed with nausea in the pit of our stomachs. It's that feeling that we cannot possibly take one more thing that causes us to snap at those who are trying to help or who mean well, that makes us want to slam doors and break things.

And most of us keep all of that emotion and all of those thoughts inside as much because we don't have anyone with whom to share whatever we're experiencing as we don't want to burden anyone else with our drama, but also because even if we do share, others don't always quite understand.

I'm blessed that I have dear friends who might not understand the specifics of my own situation, but they know me and they care about me. What's might be more important is that they help me remember and see who I am and who I can be.

The situation is no less difficult. The emotions are no less raw or less complicated. But in the self-reflection and in the conversations with friends, I have a better sense of not only who I am and can be, but the kind of person I want to be.

Saturday, May 10

Not your usual Mother's Day

It is the eve of Mother's Day and I am at the home of a dear friend. She's in one room with her daughter; I'm not quite sure what they're collaborating on this time, but they're often working together on something. I'm sprawled on a couch as is my friend's daughter-in-law. It is a testament to my friend that her children come to spend time with her, and not just because her birthday was about a week ago. They genuinely enjoy being with her and she with them.

I struggle with Mother's Day. I always have. I'm one of those standing and staring at cards, trying to find something that will be suitable but not too treacly. Trying to find something appropriate that doesn't make me want to hurl. Why? Because my mother and I have never had a great relationship.

The other day she said somethin about the "good old days" and then asked me, "We had a lot of good days, didn't we?" That's not a question formed by a lack of memory, but by a different impetus. I looked away and nodded. Yes, we had some good days. From my recollection, just not enough to counterbalance the rest. When I am with her, I'm often inclined to note that it's a good thing no one else can hear my internal dialogue. I've no doubt that anyone who might be able to hear the comments and/or responses would be legitimately shocked, perhaps even horrified.

I cannot relate to those who revere their moms, who miss their moms, who really enjoy being in the company of their own moms, and all those who truly appreciate their moms. I cannot relate to those who thank their moms for making them the men and women they have become or are becoming, although I know that I am much of what and who I am because of my mother. I know that I managed to stumble on, march through, and navigate my path as much because of her as in spite of her.

I will acknowledge Mother's Day tomorrow with a card. But that's it. That and my kindness and civility to her.

It's taken me a long time to get to this point. I remember when I wanted to be just like my mother, but that was decades ago. Now I hope and pray I can eradicate the parts of me that are so much like the mean and hateful parts of her. Now I hope and pray that I will be less like her.

Our parents were our first teachers. For many of us, our moms were our very first teachers and the most important teacher of many aspects of our lives. While my mother might have been my first teacher, I can think of others who were considerably more important to me. On the other hand, I also recognize how much my mother has taught me--and all kinds of things she never intended to teach me. Even so, I've learned a lot of valuable life lessons from her and for that I am, perhaps ironically, thankful.

Thursday, May 1

Going for it

I have a sneaking suspicion that fear of failure is the main reason many people don't succeed. And mostly because they don't even try. Finding that line between a calculated risk and foolishness can be hard for many of us.

There are plenty of self-help gurus who will tell you how to overcome your fears. Easier said than done, my friends. You know that.

Of the list in 5 Ways to Conquer Your Fear of Failure, the last one might be the most relevant to most of us. Or, in the immortal words of the Nike marketing machine, "Just do it." What's the worst that can happen? You'll fail. Sure, you have to calculate the cost and what or how much you can afford to lose, perhaps literally as well as figuratively, but, as they say, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

This is a valid question. It gets to the heart of our fear of failure. If we knew we could not fail, what would we do? If we knew we would not get hurt, what would we do? If we knew we would not lose money or reputation or face, what would we do?

I love the idea that failure is a matter of perspective. Thomas Edison said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." In fact, in the history of Thomas Edison, failure was one of his best teachers. Failure teaches you to step back and rethink your theory, your process, your approach. Failure teaches you to recalibrate and it just might teach you something remarkably unexpected.

Hemingway reported he rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times before he was satisfied. Perhaps that's not exactly failure, but it reminds us that success takes effort.

Oscar Wilde wrote, "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again." Getting it right takes time. And yes, details matter.

I told my writing students that writing is hard work, that getting the details right is hard, and that at some point, as a writer, you have to choose to be done even knowing that the moment the work is submitted, you'll think of at least one more thing you wished you'd changed. Fear of failure might mean a manuscript or text never makes it to the editor.

There are many ways to overcome that fear of failure. You've calculated the risk, you've put together your plan, you've figured out your goals and made sure they're reasonably manageable. What next?

Whether it's a big or small dream, you can't succeed unless you take a chance. "No risk, no reward." All of these sayings have some truth behind them. But the biggest reason most of us choose not to go for it is the fear of failure. We figure maybe we'll try next year or "some time." Well, there's another adage reminding us that "Tomorrow never comes."

Sure it's May 1. Sure you'd planned to start or launch whatever in January, and then in March. No big deal.

Just do it.


Have a vision.
Know what you want to do or accomplish.
Make a plan.

Then figure out your threshhold for (financial, emotional, or other) pain.

Then get started.

Go for it.

And may you be successful in it!