28 April 2013

Until I was no longer sure what was real or pretend...

I spend a lot of time thinking about safe places and what it means to feel safe. Each of us has our own ideas about safety and there are things we do to be safe and keep our families safe such as locking our front and back doors, checking them once more before we fall asleep, wearing seat belts, holding hands with our children when they cross the street, asking babysitters a lot of questions before we leave our children with them, looking in our rearview mirrors as we drive defensively, the way we are supposed to.

I think it would surprise many people I know that even though I'm an extrovert, I much prefer silence to talking--that I spend more time in my head than outside of it. And a lot of that time inside my head is spent thinking about trust and safe places, and safe people with whom I can share my deepest thoughts. There aren't many. Not even those closest to me have a free pass to my interior self. It takes years of developing a relationship for me to trust anyone.

I think about safe people a lot because when I was growing up, I didn't feel very safe and that was hard for me to understand as a child. Yes, I spent a lot of time checking doors and windows, and watching out for the "boogey man" as many children might, but much of my time was spent looking deeply at people to decide whether or not I could trust them, whether or not, I could talk to them about the dark spaces inside of me. I tried many times and discovered very quickly which people would violate my trust and which wouldn't. The pool of people I could trust grew very small as I grew older.

There is a great deal I keep close inside of me. Though it seems as if I share much of who I am, there is much of who I am that I don't share.

I remember watching a beautiful movie called Losing Layla--a gorgeous, haunting documentary about the desire for a child, watching that child grow inside her mother, and the subsequent shatter and grief that followed when Layla died. The mother, Vanessa Gorman, is a stunning person, and I knew the first time I watched it that somehow we would meet one day, and that she was the sort of person I could trust.

The first time I watched her movie, I was in Arizona surrounded by bereaved families and all of us were stunned and subsequently jealous at the fact that Vanessa was able to leave the hospital with Layla and take her body home overnight so Vanessa could experience being Layla's mother. Grace had only been dead one year, and I was still deeply bereft. The fact that I only held her for four hours made this film even more painful to watch. It hadn't occurred to me as it had to Vanessa, that I could launch some sort of campaign to move mountains to bring her home.

The film is a personal, inside look at grief and love in it's purest and rawest form. When the movie ends, you feel as if you know everything that Vanessa is thinking and feeling.

Then, toward the end of the film, after Layla has died--though you don't know how much time has passed, the viewer has the sense that enough time has passed that Vanessa has some distance on the early days of grief. The camera zooms in on Vanessa and as she talks some more about her feelings, as she chokes up and tears fall, she pauses. She pauses and says that she wants doesn't want to share everything, that she talks to Layla but much of that is private between mother and daughter and that it's important to keep some of those conversations from the viewer.

That is how I feel most of the time--that while I'm sharing seemingly bits of my personal story, that much of it is really private. That perhaps what I am giving people is a glimpse into an interior life that is complex, dark, confusing, at times lonely and private, very, very private much of the time.

And I often wonder how much of that has to do with feeling safe. That had I felt safer as a child, would I feel less likely to hold things close to my heart as an adult? Or perhaps if I felt safer as a child, there would be less darkness to hide.

I don't really know the answer to that question, but I do know that I have large issues with trust. That as much as I find and understand and discover grace and beauty in the world and as much as I am astonished by it and find goodness within most people, that I don't feel very safe much of the time. I am on red alert, watching, thinking, feeling, protecting the interior self.

Of course, having children, causes me to spend a lot of time thinking about how not to let them experience those same awkward and uncomfortable feelings that I do. And there is a lot of interior dialogue about whether or not I have succeeded. Do they feel safe?

I know do know this: I didn't feel safe enough as a child to express my emotions, to share my feelings, to say what I was really thinking. And so very early on, I discovered that masks were useful. Exterior, invisible masks that I could wear when I stepped out of my house and into the world. Invisible masks that I could put on when people came over. Invisible masks that after a while felt much more comfortable on than off until there came a day when I was no longer sure what was real or pretend.

Yes, yes, hello. Lovely, I'm just lovely and you? Of course, yes. It's a beautiful day. Thank you. Oh, I'm doing really well. Yes. Yes.

While another part of me inside was screaming out for help silently, wordlessly: Hello, hello. Can you hear me? Can you help me? I think of piece of me is dying, and I'm scared and confused and hello, hello, is anyone there?

High school was a difficult time for me. It was a period of deep confusion, of deep depression, of self-loathing and immense frustration. It was a time of multiple masks, often so many that at times, I forgot which one I was supposed to put on, and some times, I tripped over myself and nearly "got caught" with the wrong mask on.

And now, as a parent, I reflect on this often. We have our own children to raise--Terry and I--and I don't want them to experience that depth of confusion and pain even though I recognize that I cannot protect them--nor would I want to--from all of the painful emotions we have experienced. After all, to a certain extent, it defines how we become parents.

I am hopeful from the number of fits and tantrums and range of emotions displayed in our family now, that my children don't experience those same issues with trust and safety because I think those were at the core of my difficulties.

The death of my father when I was five years old shaped and molded my interior self more than anything else in my childhood, most especially because it shaped and molded the adults around me. And the death of my daughter when I was 36 years old shapes and molds a great deal of my interior self as an adult.

Both deaths guide me toward understanding love and loss, toward opening up more of my interior self than I would have felt comfortable doing before.

And much of the reason for that is this:

That on August 9, 1997, our first child, Carver was born. And when he was born, my universe shifted in one of the most provocative and profound ways I had ever experienced. Everything I felt about safety and trust and love fell out from under me and I was exposed and raw in a way that I had never felt in my entire life. Holding that child in my arms for the first time, I experienced love in a way that I'd never known before. And in experiencing that love, the loss of my own father came back toward me tenfold in ways that I'd never understood before.

I knew when I was holding that child and staring at him for the first time, that love had more power than I had ever realized.

On February 3, 2001, when Sophia was born, those same feelings of love poured over me again, a second time--how can that be?

And so when Grace died on May 29, 2003, and when I held her sleeping self in my arms on June 1, 2003, everything about love and trust and safety fell out again from under me. But this time, I was exposed and raw in an entirely different way catapulting me into the depths of darkness that I didn't know existed.

And then on March 4, 2006, something extraordinary happened again. I gave birth for the last time to one more child, Sawyer. And there once more was love in its purest form looking up toward me, and I knew then that the world was much more remarkable, complex, stunning and confusing than I'd ever realized. And darkness and light settled side by side with one another in my life at times competing for my attention and at other times sitting comfortably beside each other.

Steve Jobs once said, "We can never connect the dots looking forward, but we can always connect the dots looking back."

I refer to this a lot because it makes sense in my own life.

I work hard at connecting dots and weaving the fabric of my story across decades and across countries, across relationships and across loves and losses.

I started this post thinking about what or who makes me feel safe.

I don't know if that question can really be answered. I don't know if I'll ever truly feel safe in anyone's company, but I do know that those feelings of fear and distrust propel me forward as much as love does. All of my emotions fuel my interior thoughts and help me to mold and shape my life however broken or confusing at times.

I admire people who truly feel safe, who feel able to open themselves up to things that I spend time protecting myself from. That is not the world from which I come, but it is a world that I know exists, however rare.

I do know that today I feel safer than I ever have. That I feel like some of the time, I can pull the masks down to reveal a self that is getting to know who she really is, what she is meant to do and how the world looks all at once beautiful and compelling, rich with love and loss. It is a world of contradictions, and I don't think I'd have it any other way.

Tell me about the world in which you live. I'd love to listen.

No comments: