Matryoshkas, or, “There Be Dragons”

We think we know people. We spend our lives being surprised in ways little and large, when we discover newly observed things about them, or when our projections are revealed as coverings which prevented us from seeing who was actually on the other side. We cannot know anyone fully, but practicing openness and observation, learning not to personalize other people’s being, their actions and their words, can help us know them and us better.

Then there are the coverings we make for ourselves, the layers of person-like substance used to shield or project, to interface or to confuse. Sometimes they’re consciously designed; often they are the accretions of childhood experience, created in parts of our subconscious mind for defense or role-fulfillment, enjoyment, necessity.

I think of Matryoshkas, Russian nesting dolls. I think of dolls made not to blend, but a different personality in each layer, showing the complexities of which we all are composed.

The unexpected revealing of such layers can be a cause of celebration, of trauma, of delight, of pain, of confusion, etc. In any long-term relationship such reveals are inevitable, and can result in anything from rupture to consolidation.

A huge part of my current grief and pain is the shock I feel at discovering that my ex-fiancé was capable of doing things I would have sworn he would not. I feel betrayed, but I have to keep compassionately reminding my inner child that though some of his actions did betray our relationship, the reveal of more of his personhood is not about me at all. And really, as a grown-up I know that people are capable of all kinds of destructive action, as it is part of our human nature. When I look at the first sentence of this paragraph I realize that rather than grieving the fact that he *could* do X, Y, and Z, I grieve that he *would*, and did.

My loss is real, and not real. I did not have what I thought I did. But none of us ever do, quite. Because what we know of ourselves and of others is incomplete.

I am in the middle of a sea-change. I can’t see the shore behind me, and I don’t know where I’m going.

But I believe that we spend our lives creating ourselves, through thought and action, through the choices we make. And so as I open this self-doll to see the next one, I know I have some choice about who/what she is/will be.

As does the man who has been my beloved.

love, memory, long friendship

I talked to a college friend this evening, a guy I met when we lived on the same hall my sophomore and his freshman year. I don’t have a great memory for some things. When I went back to my college for my 20th reunion a few years ago, I found I’d forgotten vast swaths of events, people, history. It was more than a little embarrassing to realize, and I spend some time castigating myself for my lack of brain, lack of heart, whatever. But there are so many factors that impact memory, including how many places one lives, and a whole host of emotional/psychological experiences and attitudes, and I have been learning to accept this about myself. Part of that acceptance means that I am attempting to live more fully in the moments I am inhabiting, both so I can experience them more fully and so, perhaps, I will remember them more completely.

I’ve thought about how memory impacts intimacy especially since having children. My first years with my first child were so surreal; I was blissfully in love with someone whose every movement captivated me, and who would not and will not remember in any sense I understand as an adult the content of that time. And yet, I posit and hope that the feeling of it will remain with her on some level.

Similarly, there are those friendships and relationships one has which seem to exist outside the effects of time. The timber of that particular person’s voice, the feel of a loved person’s arms about you, the unique combination of scent and pheromones that tell you on some level of your brain, “lover” or “friend”, no matter the years that have passed, the conversations that haven’t taken place, the experiences not shared.

I have no idea how my friend C and I started talking, back when we were in college. I just remember the tone of some of our conversations: close, intimate, mutually supportive. I haven’t seen him in almost a decade. I have missed him. We messaged the other day, and his sense of humor struck the same sparking laugh from me. We’re older, somewhat wiser. It is a privilege to see a person grow and change, learn, mature, become more and more fully themselves. I will never cease to be grateful for old friends, for close friends, for the time over which we get to know each other in different ways. He and I have both experienced significant and wild changes over the past few years. I look forward to hearing the next chapter in his life, and sharing mine. It doesn’t matter that I don’t remember a lot of what happened in the few years we were in college together. What matters is our fundamental human connection, that attraction of soul to soul which forms the foundation of a friendship like that.

There is so much love in the world. I try to remember that when feeling despair over all the hatred, malice, deliberate ignorance, indifference. There is also love.

Being hard on myself, telling the full story

My dear friend M gave me an enormous gift today. We were on the phone, and I was crying about how hard parenting is, and how much worse at it I am than I thought I would be: specifically, the difference in how I usually interact with people (I am fairly good at being warm, loving, generous, thoughtful, communicative) and how I interact with Hazel (I feel I am mean, demanding, autocratic, insensitive, etc.) In fact, I feel two things: one, that being a mother is like being a teenager again, in that black fog of drama and difficulty; and two, that I too often find myself behaving like a toddler myself.

The other night when I was doing the bedtime routine with the kids I found a marble in the toothbrush bin and was sure that Hazel had just put it there (perhaps yes, perhaps no; it’s immaterial.) I reacted, picked it up, and threw it into the dining room. I wasn’t even actively feeling that mad, just reactive. Hazel, of course, got really upset, and demanded that I apologize. I refused, still in a reactive state. See? Toddler behavior. Ugh. I did apologize the next day, and told her I’d overreacted and it was not right for me to throw the marble. Of course, that afternoon Emily threw one in play, and so I had to say, “Emily, we don’t throw marbles in this house. Mommy did last night, but that was a mistake. Mommy didn’t make a good choice. But we don’t throw marbles.” She smiled.

So, I was relaying this to M, and she pointed out (as has been pointed out before) that I was being hard on myself. Yes, true. I’m good at that. But I still do it, because of course there is part of me that believes that I deserve it; I can stop being hard on myself when I stop making awful mistakes and only commit the small, easily forgivable offences. While we were talking about this I was getting the twins dressed and ready to go pick Hazel up. While I was putting Emily’s shoes on, I looked up to find that Joanna had brought me her coat from the hooks in the dining room. I said, “Yay, Joanna! Did you bring me your coat?” She nodded yes. I said, ” Thank you, that’s so great!” She grinned. Emily then went and got her coat to bring it to me. I was happy, and so were they. (That is, until I had to put pants on Emily. She hates that. But still, the transition to outside in the stroller went quite well overall.)

M pointed out that I had noticed the good things that the twins had just done, and told me that I need to do that with myself, too. I need to notice when I do good things, take note, and give myself credit. This is brilliant. It doesn’t mean that I’m attempting to praise myself into a better place or trying to cancel out the bad with the good: it means noticing the full picture, the whole story. It means, not focusing purely on the difficult things or wrong choices, but focusing on everything. It is being honest.

So, here are some truths: I don’t handle some stresses well, but I handle others just fine; I have good days and bad days; parenting is bloody hard work; as I learn it will benefit my children; and, I need to love myself and love my daughters, and we will figure out this family thing together.

Oh, and thank goodness for friends. They make the world go around.

Love

There’s a saying I like a lot, and that is, “Love is a verb”. Love is a feeling, of course, but it is also, at least as importantly, an action. It’s how we treat people.

This afternoon Emily was beside herself when Ted got home from the morning’s outing with the kids. We did quick lunch and then took the twins upstairs for their nap, but Emily was so tired she was unable to become anything other than very very mad and sad. After we turned the light out she started crying for Hazel. After a bit I went downstairs and asked Hazel if she’d come up and snuggle with her sister. She did. Ted was in bed with Emily, who was still scream/crying, and Hazel got in too.

And then she embodied love in action. She spoke with such tenderness and compassion in her voice, reassuring Emily, telling her it was ok, that she was ok. She told her a story. She went through the mantra we use, “Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you,” etc. She soothed and was present. In that moment I felt how having a family can expand love, make it bigger. It’s like rings from a thrown rock in water, only they grow in volume as they get bigger, rather than fading away.

Hazel was born with eyes wide open, totally and intensely present. Everyone noticed. Even when she was a tiny little baby people would come up to us in the grocery store and comment on her gaze, her presence. I felt so acutely that she was a gift to me. I was enveloped in wonder and beauty.

Life goes along and gets so complex, and kids grow and things get more complicated. They challenge you, and you lose, for a time, the purity of those early moments. But sometimes you get that back. This afternoon was a moment like that for me, a dive back into that sense of amazed marveling I felt when she first came into my life. Hazel’s presence in it is a gift of love, both in feeling and in action.

And it reminds me of how I felt as a little kid with my older sister. That quality of nurturing love that runs like a thread through our relationship to this day, and which I will always treasure.

relationships, communication, parenting

Tonight Ted and I talked about what we need to do to model in our interactions the sorts of things we’re asking for from Hazel, and attempting to teach her.

When Hazel gets upset, she has a strong tendency to go first to blame and accusation. We’ve been trying to guide her to say, instead, how she’s feeling and what she wants. So Ted and I agreed tonight to start explicitly doing the same thing ourselves. So, when I’m mad about something he said, I need to say (for example), “I’m getting into a reactive place. I’m mad that you started talking about yourself when I was telling you about how I was feeling, and I want you to acknowledge what I’ve said about me before you start talking about you.” Then, Ted can decide whether or not he’s ready to respond to that or not, and if he’s not, he can just say he wants to respond later. In the meantime, I will have taken care of myself by saying what I think happened and how I feel about it, and I will know that he’ll get back to me later (if he’s not ready to respond in the moment), and that can help me release some of the urgency and difficulty in my emotional state.

This is much better than an explicit or implicit statement that he f**ked up, and I am blaming him for how I feel. That is something we both do, though my statements tend to be explicit and his tend to be implicit. It’s all the same pattern, and I’m glad that we’re both willing to work on improving it.

Relationships are hard. I am glad, though, that the addition of children to our family is, ultimately, going to help us to get better at managing ours, even if it has also added a rather impressively thick layer of complication and stress.

One step at a time.

Meantime, all of us but Ted are sick. Today when I took the twins out in the stroller so I could run an errand, they fell asleep. Miraculously, they also napped some more, an hour and a half later. I napped too, still feeling pretty zapped by this cold. Tomorrow is a work day, because I’m doing a bunch of makeup lessons. By the time the night off enabled by the babysitter rolls around, I will be very ready for it.

Tonight I went over to meet up with Ted and Hazel, who were walking home from her friend D’s house. She saw me and starting running toward me, calling, “Mommy, mommy, mommy!” so happily. I caught her up in a big hug. That was wonderful.

I’m grateful for my kids.

sleep training, forgiveness

This afternoon we all went down for a nap, since we were all operating under the blight of continuing sleep deprivation. Joanna slept the longest, for over two hours. Even Emily napped for an hour, though, and I slept for an hour and a half. It was so lovely. The rest of the day went much better.

Tonight, we put the kids down at bedtime and crossed our fingers. Joanna spent the whole week we were in St. Louis crying piteously for me at night, and bedtime became somewhat fraught as a consequence. Tonight I tucked her in with a stuffed animal, put her blankets on her, said goodnight, and we walked out. “Waaaaaaah!” sounded very shortly; Ted didn’t make it downstairs before the first wail. He tried for a while, and then asked if I could take over. I went upstairs, hoping that one snuggle with me would do it. It didn’t. And not only did she keep crying, she kept getting out of bed and coming to the door. So, I bit the bullet and went back to our sleep-training tactics of waiting for a bit until she escalated, and then coming back in just long enough to pick her up, hold her only long enough for her to stop crying, put her back in bed, and then leave. It was painful, but from that point on it only took 3 or 4 tries before she was quiet. I felt that since I’m the one she’s been crying for, I was the one who had to do the sleep training. She only wanted me, but only my continued presence could satisfy her. And that is a recipe for sadness, difficulty, and resentment. That $$ we paid the sleep specialist when the twins were a year old has paid off in dividends, as financially painful as it was at the time. That training gave us some tools that have lasted, and something to return to when we need to. I am feeling much better tonight, knowing that I was able both to take action and get a better result.

Also this evening I have had a couple of really good conversations with friends. I am still ruminating on their content, but one insight that came to me during the second talk is something I want to write down now before I forget it.

And that is, I think there are different kinds of forgiveness. I have gotten stuck before in thinking of forgiveness as a blanket sort of thing that applies in all circumstances of hurt. I am coming to believe now, though, that it’s not. There’s the kind you can engage in when there’s been a problem in a relationship, but both parties are working to engage in truth-telling and reconciliation. That sort of forgiveness can help you heal and move forward, and allow the relationship to grow. It’s the situation in which you can honestly say, “S/he did the best s/he could, and I accept and forgive his/her human failure, and choose to see it in the light of the whole person, and move forward with love and compassion.” And that’s what I’ve considered forgiveness to be.

But that is not always possible. It’s not always true to say that somebody did the best they could. People don’t always do the best they can. I certainly don’t. I make choices every day that are not the best choices I can make. One of the ways in which I’m growing as a person is to be able to see that without shame, to just accept that, and to know that I am working hard to improve, and that it is human to make mistakes. But still, it’s easy to think of tons of examples of people not doing the best they can. I think it’s foolish to claim that they do. And consequences from those choices can be grim both in nature and degree. And in that case, sometimes, even through great pain and betrayal, people do find ways to forgive and to heal, to strengthen their relationship.

But it is not always possible, or even desirable or appropriate to move a relationship forward.

So, what does it mean to forgive someone when there’s not a mutual process of understanding and reconciliation?

I think it has to do with a variety of factors. (I haven’t fully thought or felt this out, so my apologies for any lack of coherence or organization in these ideas.)

First, acceptance: when I was talking to my friend L, the image that occurred to me first was of acceptance at a very basic level of a person’s flawed human nature. This is not the idea that someone is human, and therefore did the best s/he could, and is therefore deserving of understanding and forgiveness. This is more a practice of cultivating a resentment-free, adult-level acceptance of the fact of life that because human beings are flawed, and sometimes significantly so, they make sometimes terrible mistakes, sometimes with great deliberation or malicious intent. This happens. It sucks, but it happens, and is one of the costs of being alive. I accept this reality of human existence.

Second, disengagement. Who is carrying the burden of pain forward? Is it me? Can I choose to step away from the dance of pain, anger, resentment, disappointment? Can I commit to self-care, to loving myself with passion and consistency, and to allow the wounds from the original act/circumstance to heal? Can I view each repetition of the pattern that troubles me not as a fresh assault, but just another piece of the whole package of which I am practicing forgiveness? Can I set the other person’s behavior aside, out of the domain of my psyche, view it as having nothing, ultimately, to do with me? Can I let go of feeling rage, of being at all surprised when another repetition occurs? Can I pull myself in and be 100% responsible for my own happiness, regardless of his/her actions?

Third, being open and honest about possibility. If I can let go of needing a relationship or a person to be any particular way, then perhaps I can cultivate awareness and gratitude for anything positive, no matter how small, I have gained in the past or do currently gain in that relationship and with that person. This may let me focus on the basic human relationship I have with him/her, in order to see and feel any positive nuggets that exist, without having to engage in the complex dances of a much more connected, committed relationship that constitutes a family, romantic, or friend relationship between two responsible parties.

I think forgiveness might be a concept for which there should be many different words, to convey a variety of different approaches. For now, what I can do is work on acceptance, because that is what I owe myself, what I can do for myself.

2 parter: relationship philosophizing and Halloween

Part the First:

A couple of days ago, I had lunch with a friend and an interesting conversation (that was continued in another form with my nanny/friend when I got home) about habits and routine vs new experience in the context of a relationship.

The basic premise under consideration is that a relationship can over time be fatally drained of energy if too much time is spent in the habits and routines of the relationship. Our brains tend to notice disruption rather than sameness. New experiences can help you view your partner in a new light, or show you things you didn’t know about them before. But if you get swallowed up in routine, it’s easy to lose sight of the other person, to make all kinds of assumptions about who they are and what they’re capable of. It’s also altogether too easy to lose sight of oneself and one’s own capabilities.

Also, memories that don’t get accessed by deliberate or situational recall also get harder to find. You still have them, but they’re not always consciously available any more. And memory is one of the legs upon which relationships stand. So if memories get sunk deep under layers of routine and habit, you can lose important perspective and experience of the relationship.

The other side of the memory coin, though, is that in a long-term relationship of any sort that involves a reasonable level of what some might call nostalgia – the telling of tales from the relationship and shared experience – my access to my memories is supported and supplemented by my partner in that telling. That helps me stay in touch with my past, keep me connected to my life and helps me feel whole. Conversations I have with people with whom I have long-term history can be particularly impactful in terms of the insight, support, and understanding grounded in that history, and can offer possibilities for healing.

I have had very important conversations at times with ex-boyfriends, often but not always years after our romantic relationships were past, in which we could reach a level of compassion, with the generosity of loving understanding beyond what we were able to achieve in our prior context. We know each other so well with all that deep history, and after time and with intention that knowledge is enhanced by clarity. I am very grateful for those relationships and those conversations.

And on the other hand, too much newness, too much change or constant change can burn things up. Too much disruption from other influences or people can divert too much energy from the sustenance of the relationship, and starve it of what it needs. We need down time, processing time, time to think and feel. We need time to relax and to contemplate. And we all have limits on how much input we can take. Relationships do need our attention, and we have to have the mental and emotional bandwidth with which to give that attention and care to them if they are to survive and grow.

The bottom line is that we need both new experience and stability. We need connection. We need to remember to look for, or at least be open to what is possible in any given moment, regardless of the length of the relationship and its history. This helps counteract the weight of habit and the draining of energy.

Part the Second:
It is Halloween! We did, after all, go out trick-or-treating, but we weren’t sure if that was going to happen due to Hazel getting a pretty wicked fever yesterday. I think it’s the sickest I’ve seen her in the 5.5 years of her life. I took her to the doctor because I was hearing rails in her breathing and was worried about her lungs. They were clear, though, and so were her ears. So we went home with immune supports, and she alternately slept and watched “Pingu”, through the day, and then slept like a log last night.

“She did what?” I hear some of you saying. “She watched what?!” Yes, it’s true: I felt so bad for her that I decided on the spur of the moment and without consultation with Ted (he understood when I told him about it later) to let her watch a TV show. It’s something that our English friends the O family introduced us to (as we squirmed in discomfort, not knowing whether to hold our line or not) when we were there when Hazel was 4 years old. It is, I must say, pretty wholesome stuff, and since Ted and I had both seen it I decided to go for it. It will remain off-limits except when she’s sick, which will help it retain its magic attraction for her.

Last night her fever broke, and she continued gaining energy today, so we decided a trek around our block wouldn’t hurt. The kids were a tiger, a lion, and a house cat. I wore mouse ears. The kids shared a basket, and when we got home each person ate one piece of candy. We counted it all, and are going to let them exchange it for other things they want. I am hopeful that this will turn out to be a good system. If they really, really want their candy any given year they can have it (one piece per year of age); but they’ll have the option of swapping it out for much better things, too.

And, as always, it was so much fun to see friends and neighbors dressed up, to see all the costumes, and the smiles on kids and adults’ faces. I do love Halloween. I love seeing people wandering around as characters and animals, displaying whimsy and creativity, having fun.