4 x MOTHER’S DAY

cardTomorrow is Mother’s Day in France. I remember my grandmother saying that she knew the woman who had invented ‘Mother’s Day’ and that that person was extremely sorry she had, seeing as how it had been so commercialized. According to Wikipedia, the modern Mother’s Day began in the United States at the initiative of Anna Marie Jarvis who –recalling her mother’s prayer that someone begin a day to memorialize and honor mothers- commemorated the first anniversary of her own mother’s death by announcing plans for a memorial service to commemorate her mother for the following year. “In May of 1907, a private service was held in honor of Ann Jarvis. The following year, Anna Jarvis organized the first official observance of Mother’s Day… In the years after that, Anna Jarvis’ new holiday gained recognition in many states and spread to a number of foreign countries (… and) in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed a congressional resolution officially making the second Sunday in May the national Mother’s Day…” Wikipedia confirms my grandmother’s comment about Anna’s disappointment in her holiday’s commercialization. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Jarvis) “In most countries, Mother’s Day is an observance derived from the holiday as it has evolved in the United States, promoted by companies who saw benefit in making it popular” comments Wiki wryly.

And now, Mother’s Day is celebrated all over the world but not necessarily on the same date. Norway leads the way on the second Sunday of February, while 21 countries –including Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Montenegro and Vietnam- celebrate their Mothers the 8th of March combined with International Women’s Day (heaven forbid ladies should get two whole days for themselves!) The United Kingdom and its neighbors celebrate Mothering Sunday which is linked to the fourth Sunday of Lent (or three weeks before Easter Sunday) on the Christian calendar and usually falls in late March or early April. Nineteen countries –including Egypt, Somalia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates- celebrate their Moms on the 21st of March or the Spring Equinox linking them inevitably to the fertility of this season. Slovenia chose the 25th of March, Armenia fingered Annunciation day: the 7th of April which they call Motherhood and Beauty Day; Spain, Portugal, Mozambique, Hungary and three other countries have chosen the first Sunday in May; South Korea celebrates the 8th while Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador go for the 10th of May. The 2nd Sunday in May –being the original date- is the most popular with around 95 countries celebrating, the 14th of May it is commemorated in Benin (country I had never heard of and had to look up to discover it lies in the west of Africa), the 15th in Paraguay along with Día de la Patria –the National Day-; on the 19th in Kyrgyzstan where they speak Kyrgyz and the word ‘mother’ is Эне; on the 22 in Israel where it apparently is celebrated mainly in kindergartens with no commercialization, although –as one essay explains- “nothing in Israel is simple… not even Mother’s Day” which has now become “Family Day” in recognition of the social and cultural changes in the nuclear family (https://www.israel21c.org/the-story-of-how-israels-mothers-day-became-family-day/). On the 26th Poland checks in with its Matkas, on the 27th Bolivia and on the last Sunday in May 14 other countries, including France, shower their mothers with gifts, France having the peculiarity of moving the festivity to the first Sunday in June if Pentecost occurs on this day. Mongolia sees fit to celebrate зүгээр’s Day along with Kid’s Day (as if we couldn’t even go one day without them) on June 1. Only Luxembourg celebrates Mamms on the second Sunday of June and South Sudan pushes the date all the way to the first Monday of July (what was wrong with Sunday?)… Russia puts it off until the last Sunday in November a date selected by Boris Yeltsin and Panama chooses the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December for all those ladies with very ‘maculate’ conceptions. Indonesia slips their Ibu’s Day celebration in right before Xmas on the 22nd of December…

So, if you happen to be one of those mixed-nationalities, I-have-lived-around-the-globe and have-friends-in-every-country Moms you are likely to spend the year celebrating. I, for one, was congratulated on the first Sunday of May (my Spanish friends), the 10th of May (my children and my Mexican friends), the second Sunday in May (my son who lives in the USA and a couple of American friends on Facebook) and am looking forward to many a French felicitation tomorrow, the last Sunday in May, when I go to my coffee group where we are all mothers, grandmothers and one of us, a great-grandmother. That’s 4 x Mother’s day … and I wasn’t even a very dedicated one if I compare myself to my daughter and daughter-in-law, so the abundance of felicitations seems a bit ridiculous.

I can’t really say I chose motherhood or even really wanted it: it was just something that happened because that was the way of it. It wasn`t that I didn’t want to be a mother, of course I wanted to be a mother, because not-being-a-mother was connected with not-being-a-complete-woman, which in turn was being less-than-human: motherhood was what all women wanted (according to the belief at that time) and this belief, coupled with the fear that maybe there was something wrong with me that would prevent me from having children, made me want it even more. But, of course, no woman really knows what she is getting into until she is there, because the myths about motherhood (both positive and negative) cloud over the reality every time. I heard them all, though not from my mother who was more interested in my father, golf and bridge (in that order) than in motherhood and, although I admit to having more illusions about becoming a writer than about becoming a mother, I must have believed them to some degree because I went for it hook, line and sinker!

Strangely enough, however, I never looked on motherhood either as a terrible sacrifice or as a way to fulfillment so I am not quite sure what it is we are being honored for. Motherhood was something you did, something you shared with –at least- every other mammal on the planet –dogs, cows, pussycats, skunks and weasels included- whereas fulfillment came from doing something human (what men did) and receiving money or at least recognition for it. Fulfillment came from getting your first poems published in the University magazine not for having knit a sweater for your newly born daughter; seeing your first novel come off the press was human and noteworthy, whereas bearing very painful contractions so that the occupant of your body for the last 9 months could come out and get on with it on his own was simply obeying the inevitable laws of nature; getting an honorable mention in the Latin American Short Story Contest was something to brag about at every dinner party, while getting pregnant was something every woman was expected to do once she got married, in a way it was her obligation: if not, what did she get married for? Writing a novel was something one had to work really hard to do; changing shit-filled diapers was something one did as fast as possible and solely to stop the baby’s screaming.

I’ll never forget when a friend of my mother, upon hearing I had published a story in a magazine, cooed: “It’s sooo nice that you have a hobby like writing!” I looked her right in the eye and replied stiffly: “Writing is my profession; I do mother and housewife for a hobby”. I, like Adrienne Rich who wrote Of Woman Born, had to struggle sometimes to find those 15, 20 or 30 minutes in a day which would allow me to work on my writing even though I was fortunate and living in Mexico allowed me to have hired help to do most of the housework from the very beginning.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my children and today I can freely adore them because they are on their own. As a mother, I did everything that was needed to insure they’d have a healthy and happy childhood, with which they were probably no more miserable than any other child trying to grow up and learn what it means to be human. I did it because that was what I was supposed to do and there was no one else to do it (when there was someone else to make them dinner, change their diapers, cart them back and forth to school believe me, I was delighted: I had no need to be indispensable to my children); I did it because if I didn’t do it, I felt guilty, a bad mother, a failure as a woman. I made the sacrifices every mother makes: I hugged them and fed them and changed them and put them in the stroller to go to the park; I coaxed them through the toddler stage until they could walk properly; I blew their noses and wiped their behinds; I gave them their daily baths. Later, I took them to school and picked them up; I drove them to kids’ parties, and to the doctor and to the dentist. I bought them ice cream cones and I think that once –never again- I took them to the amusement park. I tutored my son for his dyslexia for an hour every afternoon for more months than I can remember; I drove my daughter back and forth to a child psychologist until she accepted that she did not have dyslexia like her brother no matter how badly she wanted the attention she thought he was getting because of it; I suffered through hours at the dentist’s for my daughter’s braces and I carted my son back and forth to the orthopedist for his leg braces. And these were just a few things: as I look back now I realize how selfless I actually was even within my selfish desire to do my own thing.

There is no use itemizing all the things I did as a mother, for every mother has done the same or more and knows what I am talking about. So I was a mother because that is what I was supposed to be, but what I wanted to be was a writer, and the struggle to find time (very difficult) and not feel guilty (impossible) went on for at least 8 years (when they were both finally in school) and then some. But it doesn’t occur to me that someone should honor me because I did that: I did it for myself; I did it because they would have cried and yelled and screamed until I did and I couldn’t take the noise; I did it because it’s what I do to help any living thing –including spiders and snails- that I think is suffering not because I want to stop their suffering so much as I want to stop mine upon seeing them suffer.

It is this honoring the mother I am doubtful about. I look to my grandmothers, one I knew, the other not. My paternal grandmother (whom I did not know) perhaps should be honored. She came from a wealthy Spanish family and my grandfather was also very well off so there was always plenty of help in the house, including nannies and governesses. She bore 14 children over a period of 20 years (that’s one every 17 months), the last one when she was 43; she died at 57 of colon cancer leaving three of her children still under the age of 18. Should she be honored for this? She and my grandfather were fervent Catholics and, in accordance, refused any form of birth-control. They didn’t do this for the children, they did it in compliance with their God’s wishes to insure their place in heaven, they did it because that is what people in Jerez did in the beginning of the 20th century. Elsewhere it was different: The same year my paternal grandmother had her last child, 62 year old Annie Oakley, in a shooting contest in Pinehurst, North Carolina, hit 100 clay targets in a row from 15 meters. Annie Oakley was married, but she never had any children so she didn’t get to be celebrated on Mother’s Day; rather she was honored for a talent she had and worked on, a talent she shared teaching over 15,000 other women to shoot. She was an international star who performed for kings and queens of her time. Much of the money she earned was donated to charitable organizations for orphans so in a way she mothered many children.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annie_Oakley)

After that digression, enter my maternal grandmother who was brought up in the same  America where Annie Oakley was shooting clay pigeons and supporting orphans; she also came from a poor family. She married up and my grandfather made good money in the carpet business. She credited hardships in her childhood for her fervent atheism so she had no God to answer to as far as her maternal responsibilities. She had always wanted two girls and that is what she had. She had no more, undoubtedly thanks to whatever birth control methods were available, including abortions. She had no religious qualms about this and sincerely believed that people had children for selfish reasons alone. “With all the suffering there is in life, what would you want to bring a child into the world for if it weren’t for your own pleasure.” I tend to believe her. I have yet to hear someone say they want to have a child for the child’s sake. Rather it seems to be a deep-seated belief that a child will make the mother feel fulfilled; we do it for ourselves to feel more complete, to have someone that depends solely on us, to –perhaps, if we are lucky- experience unconditional love for once in our lives… and ‘unconditional’ is also questionable.

When we moved from an apartment to a house with three bedrooms and a study, I immediately appropriated the study for myself: A Room of One’s Own was my dream and Virginia Woolf my inspiration. My children were 7 and 3 at the time. When my daughter –the younger of the two- went into first grade, I started my four year career in Hispanic Language and Literatures in the National University of Mexico. I distributed my classes between one or two days a week so that I wouldn’t be absent from home too often and many times, after they had gone to bed I would work on my essays and reading and papers and investigations for my studies. When term papers were due, I would often be still at it when they got up in the morning to go to school. And yes, there were many afternoons that I would shut the library door telling them that only in the case of the house being on fire should they knock, and knowing full well that if things got unruly downstairs, someone would come and get me.

It has now been over 26 years since both my children got married. I close my eyes and try to remember: given all the time that passes between a child’s birth and their final moving out, there are precious few definite memories: A nurse placing a horrid, red, wrinkled creature with long black stringy hair in my arms and telling me it was my son. My daughter almost dying of pneumonia at two months old; my son at 4 announcing one night in the tub that he could kill God because his teacher had said that God was in his heart so if he put a knife in his heart he would kill God: just plain logic. The guppies and watching when the mommy guppy had babies; pulling my son around the park in a red wagon when he had the braces on for his knock-knees; my daughter running hysterically into the library crying: “Mommy, mommy: what is the boy rabbit doing to the girl rabbit?” and my explaining to her how they were getting married so they could have babies. And then, a few weeks later, her question: “Mommy, did you and Daddy get married when Peter was born?” and me so innocently pulling out the photo albums and showing her the pictures of our wedding and she so patient, waiting till I finished my explanation to continue: “And Mommy did you and Daddy get married again when I was born?” so that I might understand she was inquiring about rabbits and not ceremonies; the day I went to pick up my 7 year old son in school wearing curlers in my hair and he told me in no uncertain terms that he was very embarrassed and never wanted me come for him like that again (I never did). Their summer camps, first in Mexico and then in the States; my son sitting outside our locked bedroom door at naptime and wagging his fingers saying ‘naughty, naughty’ when we came out. My precious 7 year-old daughter dressed in a red flamenco dress with white polka dots for her birthday party; my son bringing home a tabby cat and begging to keep it; my little girl at a friend’s birthday party standing very still with a pigeon on her head that the clown had placed there. And as they grew: their questions about everything and my loving the sound of my own voice as I told them my truths: sharing what I had learned so far was the most fun I remember. Moments of laughter and love flash through my mind. As I spend time to remember, the memories come in little spurts and flickers, with an inner joy, love and a sweet nostalgia… if I had known then what I know now (the privilege of being a mother) I might have paid more attention, but I didn’t, did I? If had actually known that one was not sacrificing oneself for them, that what I was doing was a totally selfish and self-loving occupation, I might have enjoyed it more than I did. As a mother I wanted my children to be happy and successful because it proved I was a good mother and because it set me free to be myself. Today, I make no such demands. I am happy that they are happy when they are; when they aren’t, I can continue to be happy anyway because that is my responsibility: my own happiness, not theirs. My contribution to their happiness is not letting them think that they are in any way responsible for mine.

So I sit writing this piece about Mother’s day, only a few hours away from my 4th Mother’s day celebration, and feel the gratitude of having had it all: the marriage, the maternity, the literary recognition, the spiritual path, the holy solitude. And, yes: I am so grateful for my handsome son and my beautiful daughter today and their lives as they live them that I can watch from afar without feeling in the least bit responsible. They have both, undoubtedly, been better parents than I was but I know today that I did the best I could in that moment. Still, I can’t feel that there is reason for a commemoration or an act of gratitude just because I did what I had to do upon receiving the gift of maternity. For that matter, we might also create a Pet-Owner’s Day because –whatever the case- the reasons for having a pet are just as self-serving or selfless as the ones for having children.

Now, as I reread and plan to publish this post, I realize how poor it is in expressing anything meaningful about the miracle of living in a body that has gestated life at some time during its existence. I also notice I have said “gestate” and not “give”, for we mothers do not give our children life (although we can take it away from them and it is perhaps that –the fact that we didn’t- that they can be grateful for), they happen in us, we harbor them and then we expel them and then we care for them until we don’t have to any more. Then, sometimes, they care for us. A strange and marvelous cycle…

 

 

GRATITUDE IS LOVE MADE GENTLE THROUGH UNDERSTANDING

cofIn my last post I mentioned the letters… (the package of letters and memorabilia that my husband had kept and which, through the kindness of his second wife and my children, reached my hands last Xmas). Well there was much more than letters. I could hardly believe finding the menu of the dinner served at the dance where Fernando was my blind date with my then phone number written on the back along with the name B R I A N D A in capital letters!!! He kept it all those years. I didn’t know, I knew nothing of this secret cache, nothing until my kids put it into my hands. To say the least: it has been one hell of a belated Christmas gift.cof

Before we were married and while I was still studying Social Work at a school near his house, Fernando used to leave small messages for me on the windscreen of my blue jeep (yes, I had a baby blue jeep that I bombed around Mexico City in, a gift from my father who figured that in an accident, the jeep would come out on top, and the day I had one, it did[1]). Little mementos… I can’t believe he kept them. Even today I can watch the movie of me leaving the building where I studied and seeing –across the street- the small cofslip of paper under the windshield wiper, and running over to find the day’s missive. A smile comes to my face and tears to my eyes… so long ago and we were so young!

Another unexpected discovery was that not only did he keep all my letters to him, but also all his letters to me, each one numbered so they can be read in succession. I have no idea when he scooped them up and stashed them away, or where for that matter. Mine are mostly typewritten (I carted my little Baby Hermes around everywhere) and his are in that clear, even script so undoctor-like that was characteristic of him.cof

First there is the series of letters back and forth from Mexico City to Acapulco that first Xmas after meeting each other. They go from the 24th of December 1961 to the first of January 1962 , and what should I discover but that he had made original drafts of these letters which he then corrected and copied onto letter paper. He kept both (which goes to show how difficult it was for him to throw anything out) so that the draft of the first letter –which had gotten lost in the mail and I never received- is there and now I can read them all complete (even twice if I want to find out what he crossed off in the drafts).

untitledCarefully folded and lost amongst the envelopes is a slip of paper with a note that he sent with 3 dozen red roses and one white one the 14th of February 1962. On the 10th of that month we had broken up after a dinner at his sister-in-law’s house where she introduced me as his “girlfriend or novia[2] ; I was 19 years old, very confused and unsure of my feelings for him (or my feelings about anything, for that matter) and he was getting serious. I remember saying that I couldn’t imagine him as the father of my children (as if I could even imagine having children at that point) and that I wanted to just be friends. He said we couldn’t be friends because he was in love with me, so we broke it off. The note with the roses said: With a thousand and one reasons and at the same time with none, I beg you receive this bouquet. Fernando. By thatcof time, I had been crying for three days since our separation so, of course, I called him immediately and suggested we give it another try. A little over 5 months later, the 31st of July, he came with his parents to ask for my hand in marriage; I found amongst his papers a note I wrote him that night to accompany the crucifix I gave him[3] to mark the event. The following day I turned 20 and, although I had managed to finally leave my tormented teens, I was none the wiser.

At the end of the month of October, 1962, I went to New York with my mother to buy my wedding dress and there was another volley of letters back and forth, this time between Mexico and New York. Mushy, icky sweet, full of I love you’s and I miss you’s and I can’t wait to see you’s and I’ll be yours forever’s; mine always trying to be a bit humorous, his never… If anything, they are boring and certainly of no interest to anyone, not even to me anymore. My first one, written on Eastern Airlines note paper, starts: Darling, I have only been in the air 15 minutes and already I miss you…” and anyone can take it from there.

fDO     BRI

The papers and mementos continued: wedding invitation, menu served, newspaper announcements and religious wedding certificate. Amidst all this official stuff, a letter written to me by my grandmother that perhaps he kept because she says how handsome she finds him. Later, two more letters from my grandmother show up, a letter from my half-brother, Manolo, and a poem written to me by my father on my 23rd birthday. After our marriage, missives map our moves, to Hermosillo, Sonora and then back to Mexico City; up to Framingham, Massachusetts where an innumerable pile of letters from his father urging him to come back to Mexico reminds me how desperately I wanted to stay in the USA and how I resented my father-in-law’s pull over my husband. We did go back however, some five months after arriving and with our three month old little boy.

cofIn September of 1966, I went up to Larchmont, New York to bring my grandmother back to Mexico to live with us. She wanted to buy us a house and move in with us. There were letters every single day of the 15 I spent in the US, one of his and one of mine, all duly numbered by him and kept in their envelopes. They tell of a falling out between my parents and my husband; it was not the first and it would not be the last but, in the end, love would always retake its course and things would be fixed. My grandmother’s stay in Mexico lasted little over a year. My daughter was born while we were in the house she had bought, supposedly for us, but shortly after I had given birth there was a fight over something so simple as to be absurd and my grandmother stormed out, went to my mother’s and put the house up for sale. It was a painful end to what I had believed to be a dream come true but, as everything, in the long run it was for the best. My grandmother returned to New York and it was several years before I could forgive her. Today it is easy for me to see how that fight had nothing to do with us, how she was sorry for her decision to come to Mexico and didn’t know how to get out of what she had promised.

Mixed in amongst our correspondence, there were personal letters to me from friends of mine, both in the USA and in Mexico, and from a Spanish cousin now long deceased who at the time was studying to be a Jesuit priest and was doing summersaults of joy over my becoming a Catholic (he never became a priest and I left all religion behind two years later). There are many notes and letters from our son, Peter, to his father, to me and to both of us. There is a letter of ours to him that, I know not how, ended up amongst the others. And there is the letter from my son to me that I most treasure, where he thanks me for the work we did together on his dyslexia for months and months when he was in 3rd grade, because he could read all the wonderful books he was discovering in College at that time.

Image (3)Amongst the notes and envelopes, a handful of photos recall the past visually: There’s me on the terrace of our weekend house in Valle de Bravo (Mexico); me with Peter newly born in Framingham,Image (2) Mass. and a snapshot that I gave Fernando when we first started dating so he could keep it in his wallet.

And then, at the end, after all the letters and notes and mementos that covered the better part of our marriage, there were three very personal documents. The first was a long, hand-written diatribe that I had sent to Fernando, basically claiming that neither I nor my children were getting the attention we needed and deserved; that he didn’t see or understand me and that every time I attempted to tell him what I wanted or needed, I found myself accused of trying to run his life and of being demanding and controlling. There is no date on it; I have no idea if it was before, after or during my psychoanalysis, but it very definitely predated the onset of our drinking together every night which led to our final alcoholism and breakup, as the drinking together every night was what I –at least- mistakenly saw as the way to get the attention and love I craved.

The other two were written by Fernando and both are about Love; in the first (and neither has a date so I can’t really know it is the first, but I intuit it) he waxes melancholic about his incapacity to love and gives himself all sorts of philosophical and poetic advice. It was the second one, however, that touched my heart to the very core. In it he begins by saying he wants me to love him because he loves me, but then he asks: “but do I really love her?” What follows is an analysis of what he considers might be his Imagefailings in our relationship and, then, Oh surprise of surprises: upon reading the next ten lines I felt for the first time that he actually saw me, saw me as I was, my longings and frustrations, my aspirations and needs, my despair in believing I had to be someone other than who I was in order to be worthy of his love. This simple but profound feeling of being seen as I was, brought a wave of love upon me.

At that moment, my heart filled with gratitude to that beautiful man who had married a woman the opposite of his self-denying mother and then demanded she turn into a self-denying wife, but who had been capable –god knows at what moment- to see this even if only briefly and admit it, even if only to himself… and then to truly see me as I was and wanted to be. What a gift!

After we were divorced, one of the things I did during my recovery (physical, emotional and mental) was to write him a letter begging his forgiveness for all the times I must have hurt him and thanking him for everything I had received from him. I remember thinking that I would have liked to receive the same from him and realizing, at that time, that he if he could have he probably would have written something similar. This small handwritten document is that letter even though it was not meant for my eyes… or perhaps it was, for it is to them it has finally arrived so many years later. Gratitude is love made gentle through true understanding.

1983 Sept DUMAC (Catira)19042014 (3)                    Snapshot_20110111_1

Thank you, my Love.

 

 

 

 

[1] It was at a cross-section in Mexico City: a car shot out of the street to my left and I hit its front fender head on. Nothing happened to the jeep, but the fender was ripped open as if by a giant iron can opener.

[2] In Spanish, novia which means ‘girlfriend’ is a term that in Mexico at the time applied to a serious relationship that was headed towards marriage.

[3] On March 26th of that year I had become Catholic and between then and when we married we had juggled pre-marital sex and confession, and that is stuff of another post.

A BAG FULL OF MEMORIES

oznorTomorrow would have been the 82nd birthday of the father of my children. In his memory, I have decided to dedicate the day to reading all the “stuff” he kept over the years, even after we had been divorced and he was remarried: a bag full of letters and mementos collected during our relationship, both before and during our marriage[1]. In this way, we were very different. I have done away with almost everything from the past and moved on, lighter, freer… yet perhaps less anchored also, adrift rather than safely docked in the harbor of approaching old age. He seems to have kept everything he could, I will see tomorrow. Already, I shiver with excitement, the memories, love and tears rising even now before I have begun.

My children showed it to me last Xmas asking what I wanted them to do with it. I glanced over a few items and realized I did not want to throw any of it out at that moment, so I took it, tucked it into my suitcase, brought it back to France and placed it on the bookshelf in the hallway. I have not opened it since but, suddenly I decided it would be tomorrow that I would. Memories…

The year was 1961. I had recently dropped out of Barnard College in New York after my first year there and returned home, begun studies in Social Work in a school run by Catholic nuns and taken up volunteer work in the National Hospital for the Handicapped. After not having received any religious education at home, I had just found out that my best friend at the new school was a nun and had begun taking Catechism with her in order to become a Catholic. Needless to say, it was a very confused period of my life and religion had somehow seemed like the best life-boat around.

After my return to Mexico, I had reconnected with some of my old schoolmates from the past and one of them had invited me to her sister’s 15th birthday party on Friday the 10th of November. At that time, a girl’s 15th birthday was the moment for her presentation in society and her parents usually threw an enormous party something like the then fashionable cotillion in New England. I was 19 and not very keen on going to a party for 15-year-olds, so I said that I didn’t have anyone to go with, but my friend immediately countered with the promise of arranging a blind date: the older brother of one of her sister’s escorts who was studying to be a doctor and was supposedly not bad looking. I accepted.

The day of the dance I participated in a fashion show at the Hospital where I volunteered and was on my feet all day. I arrived home around 6pm exhausted and announced to my mother that I was not going to the dance. She immediately told me that, having accepted, it would be very impolite to stand my blind date up; then she dangled in front of me the offer to wear one of her most beautiful red dresses and I was hooked. Truth be told, once I was dressed and made up I felt so beautiful I just hoped my date wasn’t a dead-beat. My parents drove me to the dance hall called ‘Salon Illusion’, a popular place for events at the time, and dropped me off saying that I should have my date drive me home.

As it turned out, he had not arrived yet so I sat at a table with my friend, her date and some other people I didn’t know. I was nervous. It was actually the first time I had been on a blind date and their reputation was not promising. I had visions of some pimply undesirable dancing through my head when my friend announced: “Here he comes,” gesturing towards the door. I looked up and immediately blushed: never had I had a date with someone so tall and good looking; he was like out of the movies. He came over and introduced himself. His name was Fernando and he was every bit a man at 25. Seeing I was flustered, he smiled; it was a magnificent smile: kind and soft, it lit up his whole face. From then on the night should have been a fairy tale but, as it turned out, it was somewhat of a disaster that we would laugh about for many years afterwards.

Once the birthday girl had come down the flowered staircase in the middle of the dance floor, accompanied by her tuxedoed escorts and billows of dry ice, and danced her first waltz with her father and then with each escort, the dancing was opened for all of us and Fernando held out his hand. I had grown up watching my parents dance in the living room forming a beautiful couple and now I had the chance to dance with a man as tall as my father and even more handsome, so it was with great expectations that I took his hand and was led to the dance floor.

We danced… or perhaps I should say: He danced… all over my feet! My future husband was not a bad dancer; he was –in fact- an excellent dancer; I was the one who had not learned ballroom dancing so, in the beginning, I had some trouble following him. But the problem that night was actually my mother’s dress which was tapered down to an unusual narrowness right about 4 inches below the knee. There was no way I could take the adequate step to get my feet out of the way of his rather large ones. He was embarrassed and I was more so, although it was clear what the problem was. Perhaps we should have given up, but we didn’t. He tried to measure his steps to the constraint of my skirt and I tried to keep my toes out of reach of his feet. My shoes took a beating and we spent most of the time apologizing to each other, but we managed to dance till 3 in the morning.

By that time, I was ready to go home and I hinted at it several times with no success. My date didn’t seem at all interested in doing what to me was obviously called for, which was to deliver me to my parents’ house. Finally, my friend  –probably tired of hearing my fruitless hints– offered me her chauffer and Fernando immediately asked if he could accompany me. As we both climbed into the back of my friend’s chauffered car, I was at a loss to understand why in the world he hadn’t offered to take me himself. No explanation was offered as we drove to my house. When he walked me to the door that night, he asked for my phone number so –in spite of the fact that he didn’t even try to kiss me on the cheek- I presumed he was interested. I certainly was. I had never been out on a date with a real man before: just boys, usually my own age or slightly older and wanting nothing more than to get into my panties as fast as possible. This was different and I wondered how it would turn out.

IMG-20130319-WA0000But it did… turn out, I mean. Months later we both shared our experience of that first night. I confessed that I had not wanted to go to the dance and that my mother had bribed me into it with the fateful dress, and that I had thought very poorly of him for not offering to take me home. As it turned out, he hadn’t wanted to go to a 15-year-old’s dance party either (after all he was finishing medical school and soon would be a practicing doctor), but that morning his horoscope had said he would meet the love of his life and he had gone to the party to prove it was wrong (destiny is a tricky thing!). As for taking me home, he had heard me from the first hint, but didn’t own a car at the time and had not thought to take any money with him, so he had no idea how to solve his dilemma until my friend had offered her chauffer.

So tomorrow I am going to dedicate the day to him and memories: tomorrow –Friday again, only 56 years, 5 months and three days after that first encounter in a Dance Hall called Illusion.

[1] His second wife was kind enough to keep this and pass it on to my children after his death in 2012.

READING, WRITING AND RAIN

Two things: I haven’t been writing and it has been raining almost non-stop for more weeks than I care to count. Yes, we get a sunny day in-between weeks of rain and everyone rushes out and basks in the sunshine with faces of just having won the grand prize. We all walk through town smiling at each other as we pass and I find myself saying to everyone “What a beautiful day!” (in French, of course). To which most people feel obliged to respond: “Yes, but it is going to rain tomorrow again.” I wonder why… it’s like raining on your own parade.

As I said: I haven’t been writing, and I have been reading. At least that is a good thing. Strangely enough, I ended up reading two books about radical Islam back to back: The Looming Tower (by Lawrence Wright) and The Girl Who Beat ISIS (by Farida Khalaf co-authored by Andrea C. Hoffman). It was an interesting encounter because the demise of Al-Qaeda foreseen at the end of the first book (which is about the 50 years of radical Islam leading up to 9/11) seems to have led to the rise of ISIS viewed in the second book. Looming has been made into a television series and I can see why it would make a magnificent one; the book was fascinating and –in spite of all the unpronounceable names, foreign places and shifting loyalties- made for spellbound reading from start to finish. I had often asked –both myself and the people who attended my workshops- what the pilots of the planes that hit the towers must have had to believe in order to commit that act: the book made that very clear. It was a most interesting fact to see how these mostly young men not only believed that everyone who does not adhere to radical Islam as they see it is an infidel (and often that included their own family members), but also that to die while killing said infidels assured one martyrdom. What Wright found and made clear through his book is that these young terrorists go out to kill –yes- but much more than that to be killed. Martyrdom is their ultimate goal for it brings uncountable benefits to the martyr and to over 70 members of his family. Several times in the book, the author reflects the frustration of leaders of diverse groups who have not been allowed (by Allah) to obtain martyrdom. I finally understood the motivation of the pilots and could see that –in the end- it was as selfish and ego-bound as most human motivations. After all, it is Ithe martyr who will live forever in Paradise with all those virgins and be worshipped unconditionally by my family for the spiritual benefits that I have provided.

(The day has gotten so dark that even though it is noon I have the lights on.) In his book, Wright skirts judgment for the most part and just presents the facts as he has researched them. This means that we get to view these young men living out their beliefs without the label of ‘terrorists’, just as we get to see the members of the CIA or the FBI without the label of ‘heroes’: just people, believing what they believe.

Of course, one believes what one believes and this is neither good nor bad. Have you ever tried not believing what you believe? As long as I believe that I want it to stop raining when it doesn’t, I’ll feel frustration every time I look out the window. If I don’t believe that thought or its opposite… if I don’t believe any thought, I will just gaze out the window and notice that it is either raining or not. But the whole matter is very difficult because I believe that what I believe is good, and that what the terrorists believe is bad and that gets a whole set of emotions going. Wright’s book is outstanding in that he allows you to see what every character is believing (and that includes not only the terrorists, but also all the players on the American side who fumbled the ball, so to say, between the different government agencies and thus made 9/11 possible) as they all move inexorably towards the tragic end. This is deep Greek drama: we get to see fate at play through the beliefs held by the different parts. I’ll say no more, but highly suggest reading the book rather than, or at least before, seeing the series.

The second book is the complete opposite: it is the personal tale of a 19-year-old Yazidi girl, Farida (not her real name), taken prisoner along with others by ISIS. The story is told in first person by the young woman who –along with several others- is imprisoned, routinely raped, brutally beaten and sold off several times to different ‘owners’ until she and a few others manage to escape. Here the good beliefs of the Yazidi girls are contrasted with the bad beliefs of the members of ISIS and several times in the course of narration, Farida asks how it is possible that the men who own, rape and beat her can believe that their God condones this. And yet, Farida herself also believes blindly in the dictates of her religion which says that God, after creating the world, placed it under the guardianship of 7 angels, whose chief is known as Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Interestingly enough, Melek Taus –who as world ruler causes both good and bad to befall individuals- has once fallen temporarily from God’s favor before his remorse reconciled him with the Deity. In other words, Melek Taus is ‘a fallen angel’ or Satan for the fervent Muslims who follow ISIS and consider the Yazidis ‘Devil worshippers’; they also surely must ask themselves how the Yazidis can believe such things.

Byron Katie calls this believing ‘the I-Know mind’, and invites us to question it and set ourselves free. The ‘I-Know mind’ does not apply only to formal religion, however, but to every thought which we believe. If I believe my daughter should phone me and she doesn’t, I might feel frustration or disappointment. Then, if I call her instead, my emotions will go into ‘attack mode’ and I will accuse her of ‘never calling me’. If she feels attacked, she’ll defend herself by attacking me back (‘you refuse to understand how busy I am’), and we have a war. If I find out that my best friend voted for Trump and I believe that Trump voters are all idiots, I just lost a best friend even if I don’t say anything. What I believe becomes ‘my religion’ in the moment I believe it and –unless I question it- it rules my life as surely as radical Islam rules the lives of the young men who die for it. Both books make this very clear.

The ‘I-Know mind’ is an absolute dictator: nothing can penetrate it; to go against it is like beating your head on a concrete wall and expecting the wall to give way. Believe me: I know! I have one, it decides ‘this is good, this is bad’, ‘this is beautiful, this is ugly’, this should not be, this should be’, ‘he must, she mustn’t’. It never stops, judging, deciding, choosing; making war against, allying with. My ‘I-Know mind’ does this all day long; it’s its job.

Fortunately, in 2003, I learned 4 questions that set me free when I use them to question my beliefs (see: www.thework.com), the first of which I now call my ‘Heart-question’. It has taken many years for the ‘I-Know mind’ to, little by little, fall in love with the ‘Heart-question’ Is that true? Now they live together hand in hand. When the I-Know mind states absolutely ‘She shouldn’t do that!’, the body stiffens; then its loving Heart whispers: “Is that true” and the body softens, looks again and smiles.

So my recent literary journey into the extremes of the I-Know mind has made me appreciate even more than before the power of these four simple questions. And if it is to books we must turn, rather than continuing along with the ego-centered Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” which has placed our frail human reason on a dangerous throne, we might choose to go back to Socrates’ simple “I only know that I know nothing”… except perhaps that the rain continues.

 

 

 

NOTHING / NO ONE

cof

 “The original stressful thought is the thought of an I. Before that thought, there was peace. A thought is born out of nothing and instantly goes back to where it came from. If you look before, between, and after your thoughts, you’ll see that there is only a vast openness. That’s the space of don’t-know. It’s who we really are. It’s the source of everything, it contains everything: life and death, beginning, middle and end.” – Katie

 

There, I said it: “I”. This morning I found myself singing “Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful” as I walked down the street in the sunshine. I have not been able to write, I have actually not been able to do much of anything. Not sure if it has been because of the miserable weather we seem to be having day after day, or some internal weather clouding over with unquestioned thoughts. Stomach has been off, body tired…

But it is true: before the thought of an “I” there is peace; there is no one and there is nothing: only an infinite space filled with love and that which –in our lack of a better word- we call darkness.oznor

I would want to say “Life is not easy” but then the question Is that true? arises. I would like to say, “Stress has entered my life” and I would be forced to answer the question Can I absolutely know that is true? And I find the “no” surfacing each time. Noticing, noticing…. the emotions, the stories, the fear, the frustration… I question… I… Who would I be without the “I”? The body relaxes, the mind quiets. Often I ask: “who or what is looking through these eyes?” And I wait. There is no answer. Or I go looking for the observer and upon finding it, then ask: Who has found the observer; who observes the observer? And it all goes back and back until once more there is … darkness (for lack of a better word), the inexpressible… that which is not I. oznor

So I walk down the street saying “Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful,” and instead of writing, I take pictures; I capture the beauty of the world around me (the world is around me… Is that true?). I hang the pictures on my Facebook page because the “I” must keep proving it exists by collecting “likes” and comments. The I that no one has been able to find, not in the body, not in the mind… The I that believes it is grateful… Is it true?

“Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful”… Even for rain and stress and upset stomachs and emptiness… All that, “Thank you, thank you; I’m so grateful…”

sdr

 

KUFUNGISISA

I have always loved words. When I was little, about eleven or twelve, my grandmother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her that I wanted a dictionary. I received my first Webster’s. It was a school edition, but I loved it. Sometimes I would sit with the dictionary open to a page and read all the words on that page with their definitions.

My grandmother knew I loved words, so she also gave me her very own Roget’s International Thesaurus – the 1941 edition (which makes it a year older than I am). My first dictionary went the way of all good books (which means I have no idea where it is after having given it to my son when he went away to school in the States) but I still have the Thesaurus and use it frequently, although I have acquired a new edition dated 1978 and today I generally prefer to google the word because internet offers all kinds of fascinating connections.

Yesterday, somewhere on Facebook -or maybe it was a TED talk- I heard and saw the word that forms the title of this page; kufungisisa. It is Zimbabwe for ‘depression’ and literally it means ‘thinking too much’ which –of course- hits the nail on the head. If I am constantly thinking gloomy thoughts (nobody loves me, the world is in a terrible state, everything is wrong, I’m all alone, I’ll never have enough money) and believing these thoughts, I create a state of kufungisisa, I get the ‘thinking disease’ which in the west we call ‘depression’.

To depress means to deject, to make despondent, to exhaust, afflict, beat down, bother, dampen, daunt, discourage, dishearten, dismay, dispirit, disturb, dull, lower, reduce, sadden, sap, trouble, upset, weaken, weigh down. Or, in a sense, to abase, cow, darken, debase, debilitate, degrade, desolate, devitalize, distress, drain, enervate, faze, mock, mortify, oppress, perturb, scorn, torment, try, weary, to reduce to tears… which is exactly what depression or kufungisisa does.

Well, today –despite the fact that the lights have gone off and on four times and made me rewrite entire paragraphs of this post- I am not in a state of kufungisisa, although I very well could be if I did not regularly question my thoughts.

For instance: the other day someone said to my face that they considered me despicable. Now that is a word I don’t remember ever using either in my conversation or my writing. Despicable is a word that apparently can and did make me rankle for a moment as I withdrew from the speaker and sat with. For a while, I was definitely nettled, peeved, piqued, ruffled and put out, but as soon as I was able to find how that person might have seen me as despicable, and realize that what I had done to provoke her wrath might have been done in a kinder way, I was free to apologize for my part and move on to simply finding exactly what the adjective meant and how it did for synonyms. It was a rich field of investigation and one that had a personal motive: I wanted to see if I really had been despicable, as the other person had suggested.

Despicable is an adjective meaning very unpleasant or bad, causing strong feelings of dislike. It is said of someone deserving to be despised or regarded with distaste, disgust or disdain; contemptible. This person might be so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation (oh dear me, what I had done wasn’t really that bad!!!); a wretched or wicked person (not me at all, no, at least not in this case).

According to internet, if you say a person is despicable, you are emphasizing that they are extremely nasty, cruel or evil. I looked closely at myself and certainly did not find that I had acted in any way that made me abominable, abysmal, apocalyptic, appalling, awful, corrosive, grisly, grotesque, gruesome, maybe just a little bit hateful, but certainly not rotten, shitty, shockingly stinking, wretched, vile, perhaps a bit mean, but in no way detestable nor contemptible, low, base, cheap, worthless, disgraceful, shameful or abject, perhaps just a mite reprehensible, but in no way ignominious, disreputable, beyond contempt and deserving of hatred and contempt. To say the least, I found that the person who called me despicable had exaggerated (as in amplified, distorted, falsified, inflated, misrepresented and overdone it just a wee bit, and with this the rankling, bother, hurt, vexness desisted.

So, seeing that the sun has finally come out and the despicable weather (as in appalling) has passed, I think I will take this just slightly abominable self out for a walk with my lovable (as in adorable, captivating, cute, delightful, darling) dog, Salomé.

NOT MORE GUNS, NOT LESS GUNS… NO GUNS!

Coincidentally I was reading We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver when the Florida school shooting took place killing 17. It was a riveting read about a 17 year old boy who kills 9 people in his school and more so as I longed to understand what goes on in the mind of any young person capable of committing these atrocious acts. In the book, Kevin’s mother (the narrator) also struggles to understand why her son meticulously planned and carried out the murder of 8 school companions and one teacher. I will not spoil the book for anyone who wishes to read it and, in spite of what I considered an unnecessarily gruesome end, it was well worth the read.

As with everyone I know, I was horrified not only by the Florida killings, but with the printed fact that by the 15th of February there had been 18 school shootings in the United States[1]. That’s one shooting every two and a half days, every 36 hours. No, mistake: there are 13 days (weekends and the 1st of January) where there was no school, so it was 18 shootings in 34 days, or a shooting every 1.8 days. As The Guardian states in the note below, there were a couple of accidents, some incidents with no deaths, and two suicides but none the less, there were 18 gun related incidents in schools in the first 34 working days of 2018.

As if this were not bad enough, I then heard President Trump (or The Donald as Obama called him) say that the problem was that schools were gun-free zones (not that kids could buy or get a hold of automatic and semi-automatic weapons) and that the solution was to arm the teachers[2], a proposal that shouldn’t even merit comment, much less consideration, an opinion I voiced to a group of friends during market day in Salies. I was surprised to find that one of the ladies, though claiming that semi and automatic weapons should be banned, considered that having a gun was a necessary defense. This made me think of my father and remember an incident that taught me a lot about guns when I was young.

1920 Sep 25, Laguna de Medina 2First some background. My father was a hunter (the picture on the left depicts him at 18, in Spain, 1920) and, as such, owned a good amount of shotguns which he kept under lock and key in a gun cabinet. Everything I know about guns I learned from him. Even as a child I was taught that you never, EVER, point a gun –even a toy gun, even a water pistol- directly at another person. When I asked my father why he didn’t buy himself a pistol, he said that he had shotguns because they were for hunting; pistols, and most other weapons were for shooting people and he had long ago decided that he never wanted to kill any other human being (he had done his military service during the Rif war in Africa and, from what I have read about it, there were atrocities committed on both sides); that –according to him- was the reason he had not gone back to Spain when the Civil War broke out for he would have been expected –as a member of the Spanish nobility- to lead troops into battle.

When I was around the age of 13, my father began to show me how and how not to handle a shotgun. I was taught that the moment the gun was handed to you, you break it open and check the barrels to see if it is loaded; that you never walk with a loaded gun even if you have it open (his best friend had lost an arm by tripping while walking with an open, loaded gun); that the safety should be on at all times until the moment you plan to shoot your prey. He showed me how to clean a gun after using it, how to aim ahead of a flying prey so that the shot and the bird would cross paths. He took me to shoot skeet at the gun club and let me practice until I was pretty good at it. Then he took me duck 1922 1 (2)hunting, in Acapulco, out at the Lagoon of ‘Tres Palos’ (Three Sticks) where we stood, at the break of dawn, up to the knees in swamp water, hidden by the marsh grasses, waiting for the ducks to fly over. I remember feeling very important to have been included in the hunting expedition (my mother had preferred to stay home in bed and was happy to have me as a stand-in) although I don’t know if I shot any duck on that first time. Neither do I remember how often I went with my father. Actually I only have two clear memories of these experiences: the first, feeling things crawling up my legs from the swampy water (and discovering later that it was nothing more than the air bubbles from my sneakers) and the time I shot and wounded a duck. The poor animal dropped to the water well within my reach and I could see it fluttering helplessly. From watching my father, I knew that it was my obligation to wring the creature’s neck in order to end the suffering I myself had caused it. So I waded out to where the bird lay and took it gently by the head with my right hand. Then, trying not to look into its eyes which were still open and alive and attempting to kill it without causing it harm, I gave it a couple of soft swirls. I can still feel today the warmth of its body, the life still present there. I was heartbroken, I hated myself and I just wanted the damn bird to die so I could stop suffering myself. It did not oblige under the gentleness of my feeble attempts. So after three half-hearted swings and seeing that the duck was still flapping around suffering, I could stand it no longer. I plunged the feathery body into the water and put my heavy cartridge box on top of it so that it finally drowned to death. I realized in that moment that I was not capable of killing an animal and I have never been hunting since.

1951-3 Mexico (4)However, the incident that taught me the truth about guns took place a year of two later. Our house in Mexico City –as most of the houses there- had a flat roof where we hung the laundry and had a storeroom. Late one night, after we had all gone to bed, my father heard footsteps on the roof and realized that someone had managed to climb up there and was walking around. As my mother told the story later, my father grabbed a broomstick and went up to the roof to face the invader. She was laughing and my father was right there eating breakfast so it was obvious the story had a good ending, but I was shocked.

“Why didn’t you take one of your shotguns?” I queried, thinking how ridiculous and helpless a broomstick must have looked to the invader. “Supposing he had had a gun?”

“Well,” my father explained, “if he had had a gun, he obviously would have been more than prepared to use it, something that for me would have been difficult if not impossible; so if I had appeared with a gun he might have shot me right off while I considered the possibility of doing the same. A person who breaks into a house with a gun is prepared to use it; I was not. It was safer to go up without a gun if you know you are probably going to think twice before pulling the trigger.”

I understood perfectly: I couldn’t even wring the neck of a dying duck to stop its suffering! So, I ask myself or anyone else who will listen, how many teachers are prepared to pull out a gun and shoot a student before he sprays everyone in the classroom with automatic fire power? It’s ridiculous! Even if the teacher is trained and manages to extract his/her gun from its concealment, aim at the student and pull the trigger, the possibility of landing a deterring shot before the other responds in kind is minimal. And then we have to think how many teachers would be able to do this and how can we be sure that the classroom to be shot up is one with a gun-toting teacher? My history class was taught by a Miss Hunter who –if I remember correctly- was a small, aged lady with white hair and glasses. I just can’t imagine her pulling out a Smith and Wesson from her girdle and shooting our aspiring high school killer before saying calmly to the class: “Please open your History books to page 347 where we left off last Friday and commence reading, and, Ralph, would you mind removing that trash from the doorway and depositing it in the Principal’s office.”

The basic argument against gun control runs to some version of the following: “With gun control, the good people will be forced to give up their guns while the baddies will continue to have them; we will be defenseless”. Nothing is farther from the truth, as my father well understood and showed me with his brave example. If someone armed enters to rob my house, he/she probably does not mean to kill me, just to take what he/she wants and depart. He/she will only shoot me if I threaten to shoot him/her. If, on the other hand, someone wants to kill me, they will undoubtedly do it while I am walking down the street unarmed, or driving by in a car unarmed and not while I am in my own home where I might have a weapon. Therefore, gun control might actually save my life, not put it in danger.

The mostly ‘kids’ who shoot up schools are not hardened criminals; they are usually ordinary –sometimes mentally or emotionally disturbed (not ‘sicko’ as Trump said)- kids. Gun control would make it more difficult for these unfortunates (yes, they are as unfortunate or perhaps more so than the ones they kill) to obtain weapons, especially automatic weapons. It is much more difficult to kill 17 people shooting them one by one, than it is spraying them with a hail of bullets without even having to aim.

As I am not a hunter, personally I have no use for a gun in the house; I know I would be absolutely incapable of using it. I have proof, for when I was kidnapped, many years ago in Mexico City, I found myself trying to figure out a way to escape. One day, the kidnappers left an empty bottle of wine in my room and I thought to myself that I could use it to hit my guard over the head the next time he came in and make a break for it. Immediately I realized I would try to do it gently so as not to hurt him (just like the poor duck) and that would have me ending up as the object of his wrath. Fortunately, the police did the job for me and I was rescued.[3]

So if you ask me –and nobody has- I’d say “not more guns, not less guns, but NO GUNS is the only solution.”

[1] In all, guns have been fired on school property in the US at least 18 times so far this year, according to incidents tracked by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group. In eight of these cases, a gun was fired on school property, but no one was injured. Another two incidents were gun suicides, claiming the lives of one student and one adult on school property. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/14/school-shootings-in-america-2018-how-many-so-far

[2] Some gun rights advocates have pushed to expand gun-carrying in schools further. Andrew McDaniel, a state legislator in Missouri who introduced legislation last year to make it easier to carry guns in schools, told the Guardian that, in rural schools where it might take 20 or 30 minutes for law enforcement to respond to a school shooting in progress, it made sense to have other armed citizens ready to step in. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/14/school-shootings-in-america-2018-how-many-so-far

[3] The book I wrote about this incident is called Once días… y algo más and is available on Amazon; the translation into English, Eleven Days, is out of print and 2nd hand copies are quite expensive I believe.

LETTUCE, MOMMY-HUGS AND MEMORIES

Mom 80Funny how some moments stick in one’s mind forever. I was just making myself a salad for lunch and every time I make a salad I remember my mother. Not all of her, just one precise incident, one small moment in time. It must have been in the ‘60s, we were at my parent’s weekend house in Valle de Bravo –a small lakeside town in the wooded hills of the State of Mexico about three hours’ drive from Mexico City- and they had invited a Norwegian couple with whom they had been friends (and neighbors) for years: Ella and Ivar. My mother set about preparing dinner and Ella offered to help (I was in the living room talking to my father, I think). Suddenly my mother stomped out of the kitchen; she was livid, her thin face all screwed up into a grimace, her boney hands tightened into little fists.

“She sliced the lettuce! How can she be so dumb? Lettuce for salad should be torn not sliced!” She seemed beside herself with rage. I remember being shocked not that my mother was mad (a state she often found herself in), but that she could get so upset over such a small detail. What in earth did it matter if lettuce for salad was sliced with a knife into even pieces or torn by hand into uneven pieces? I don’t suppose anything came of my mother’s tantrum that night because I remember nothing more about the evening, but even today I can never prepare lettuce for salad (tearing it, of course) without thinking of my mother and her rather absurd anger that one evening, and when I slice the endive that I usually include in my salads, I wonder if she would have thought I should tear it also.

I must admit that my mother getting angry was something that happened more often than I like to remember. One of my early “traumas” stemmed from the yelling fights between my parents after they had had a couple of evening cocktails. I remember my mother saying once that she never slept so well as after a fight with my father (she would stomp off to the bedroom and lock the door leaving him to sleep in the living room or library).

Strangely enough, the fondest memory I have of my mother is precisely of her getting angry. It comes from when she was much older, in a nursing home in Madrid, Spain, and completely gaga. Senile dementia had stolen her capacity to speak and to understand all but the simplest of phrases, such as ‘Would you like some ice cream?’ The only thing she seemed to have not forgotten was how to get mad. Some days when I would go to visit her in the residence, she would see me come through the door and her face would screw up into a grimace of anger and her hands would tighten into those two little angular fists that seemed to say she was ready for a fight. She would glare down and off to the side as I stepped into the room.

“Are you angry, Mother?” I would query gently, smiling to myself and her whole body would tighten even more like a spring forced to twist against its natural coil. “Ok then, I’ll just sit here beside you for a moment and wait,” I’d say, taking the empty chair to her right. We’d sit there in silence for about three minutes and then she would stand up, take two steps, sit herself down on my waiting knees, lift her legs so I could pass my arm beneath them, and cuddle up to my neck like a child. She weighed no more than 47 kilos by then, so holding her thus was easy and delightful. All the love that many times I had failed to feel for my mother previously would flow through me at those moments and I would melt with tenderness for that head-strong, demanding, spoiled woman who had given me life. She… Life… gave me that most precious memory that even today –more than eleven years after her death- I cannot remember without feeling tears of joy filling my eyes and without my heart swelling with love. It is strange, perhaps, that this should have been her parting gift, seeing as she had seldom been physically demonstrative towards me before. As a matter of fact, I have very few –if any- memories of physical closeness with my mother except this incredible present of her final years.

When I was 50 (my mother would have been 77) and recently divorced from alcohol, cigarettes and my husband, I went into a prolonged period of psycho-therapy and discovered that I, much like my mother, was filled with rage and that 99% of this fury was directed against what I saw as the spoiled, selfish, egocentric adolescent of a mother I had. I remember entire sessions with the therapist, me insisting that I hated my mother and she gently suggesting that, actually, I loved her. Little by little, I worked through the anger, learning to place limits, to not allow her manipulation and to see her as the aging, frightened, lonely woman she was. Then something happened that changed our relationship forever.

She had dropped by my house and was about to leave when suddenly into my head and out of my mouth came the following words: “I want a Mommy-hug”. She looked at me obviously bewildered. I stood there in front of her waiting. By that time, she had shrunken quite a bit and I was around 6-8 cms taller than she was; I could have easily taken her in my arms forcibly and done the hugging, but that wasn’t what I wanted. “Give me a real Mommy-hug” I insisted opening my arms but not moving towards her. She cautiously and stiffly lifted her arms and placed her wrists at the height of my waist, giving a little squeeze.

“No,” I stated firmly, “I want a Mommy-hug, a really real Mommy-hug.” She moved a little bit closer so that her forearms could sort of bend behind my waist but she still was centimeters away from the bulk of my body. I felt a slight increase in the pressure, but whatever it was, it was so far from a hearty hug that I repeated with even more emphasis: “No! A Real Mommy-Hug!”

With that, she suddenly moved in close, entwined her whole arms around my waist as I put mine around her shoulders and we hugged a real hug. I have no explanation for what happened in that instant. I can only describe it like a lightning-bolt of energy passing between us through the whole length of our bodies. I don’t even know if she felt it too, but I was left speechless. She quickly let go and stepped back, mumbled something and headed for the door. I couldn’t even move, fixed in place by the memory running through my body of what had just happened. I heard her car drive away, but still I stood there, glowing with the absolute realization that I loved my mother, and that what had passed between us could only be the intense discharge of the energy of that love so strongly denied.

A few minutes later, I was still standing there or close by, when I heard her car pull up again. Then I heard the car door open, and her feet rapidly mounting the steps to my door. Suddenly a small morsel of paper was slipped under the door, and her steps descended again, the car door closed and she drove off. I moved to pick up the paper. Written on it, in pencil and in her neat, measured script I read:

        That hug was the most important that has ever happened to me in my life.

That was all, nothing more: no gushing, no overstatement, just sixteen simple words expressing –perhaps- her painful, lifelong incapacity of physical closeness with her daughter. From that day on, every time I saw my mother, I would adopt a mischievous expression on my face, tilt my head and laughingly say: “Oh boy, oh boy: time for a Mommy-hug”, and we would move easily into each other’s arms laughing.

A short time later, my mother began to lose her cognizance and over a period of eleven years she slowly left. In the beginning, it was not easy for either of us because she was terrified and I was intensely and selfishly working on rebuilding my life, but we did the best we could as we all always do. Those eleven years, during which I was responsible for making my mother’s life as easy as possible given the circumstances, were a gift. I never brought her to live with me (as my brother had suggested the moment he knew her mind was going, to which I countered that he might consider having her move in with him, thus ending the conversation) because I had decided that I had a right to love my mother and I knew that if I burdened my new life with her ever increasing care, I would end up closer to murder than affection. While in Mexico, I hired the best help I could so that she was always seen to, accompanied and cared for while living in her own abode. When I moved to Madrid and brought her with me, she was placed in the best nursing home available, only six blocks from my home so that I could visit as often as possible. I know I did the best I could and, therefore, I have no regrets. And I asked the Universe, God, the Cosmos or whatever you wish to call that which governs our existence on this plane, that if it was possible I wanted to be with her when she passed. That wish was miraculously granted as I have written about in another place and will not repeat here.

Now I am near the age my mother was when we had our first hug, progressing through my own 70’s and I begin to contemplate (still, I hope, at some distance) the wrapping up of my personal story. I cannot say that I have done a better job than my mother at mothering because I doubt very much that I have. But fortunately now I know –just as I hope that she did- that I have done the best I could, always and that I love my children just as much as my mother loved me which –in the end- turned out to be more than enough.

 

 

FOOT-IN-MOUTH DISEASE AND FOUL WEATHER

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Now that I am almost totally recovered from my latest bout of Foot-in-Mouth disease thanks to eating a lot of Crow, I can turn my mind and my writing to other matters of more immediate importance.

But before I do, allow me to say that Foot-in-Mouth disease has been with me always, sort of like cold sores or pimples which are hard to avoid getting at some time in your life if you are human. For some strange reason, I never learned to keep my mouth shut, or that Silence was Golden, or that words once spoken (or written as is often my case) could not be taken back, or any of that adult wisdom which is so generously spooned out to young-uns. This doesn’t mean I can’t keep a secret; I am actually an excellent secret-keeper. If someone says to me: “Please don’t tell anyone what I am about to tell you,” I will put the forthcoming information in the forget-it box and never recall it again. My friends can attest to that. But if you do not give me those specific instructions when you share something with me, you run the risk of it appearing in a conversation later on or –more likely- in a blog-post, a letter, or even in a posthumous diary my children choose to publish. Everything is fodder for the beast of creativity and when it lets loose, there is little room for contemplation of dire consequences. My kids, now-a-days, come up with TMI (too much information) when my telling of a story exceeds the proper amount of editing, because they are used to my always adding more details than needed.cof

Now, on to other things such as the weather. The weather has been more than ghastly. It has been frightful, dreadful, horrendous, hideous, grisly, revolting, repulsive and downright gross! Having completely skipped over the need to produce a few frosts to kill vermin and mites (we had but three days below zero in November), winter has proceeded to weep its eyes out in drizzles, in torrents, in scattered drops, in mizzling mists (sort of like the kind of moisture spray you can buy to humidify your face)… nonstop! Apart from making Salome’s and my daily walks a kind of torture by water, the extreme humidity has cofprovoked a very early spring.

Yesterday it rained almost all day –give or take an hour or two around noon- and today we have even more. The Weather Man announced that our region was on Orange Alert (which is about stage three on a Def Com scale of 4) for flooding and the map of France was 98% grey with raindrops all through it. Thursday we had what had to be the most beautiful day in a cofmonth, during which the sun pushed its way through the clouds for at least two hours and no rain fell. But before and after that it has been one storm front after another, accompanied most times by strong winds that uproot trees from water-logged soil, topple lamp-posts, and strew the streets with dead leaves and branches. Even the roosters and hens are oznorwater-logged.

It’s not even the end of January and the daffodils are coming up, the camellias are blooming, lawns are filled with dandelions and the white and yellow polka dots of paquerettes (usually not seen until around Paques or Easter oznorweek) and I just sighted several printemps (the definite spring flower) peeping out under the bushes in a flower bed and even a lonely violet. And the temperature, apart from seldom going below 9ºC, pushes up to 13º, 14º and 15ºC during the day even without the help of sunlight. It seems that if we had sun, we would have summer already! And then there are some who deny the problem of climate change (won’t mention any names because of oznorthat F-in-M disease which could catch up with me next time I want to visit my son in Los Angeles).

Every once in a while I pause in my writing and turn to glance out the window only to certify that the rain keeps on falling. Oh well, it is Sunday, after all, and I have a couple of good movies to watch, so… until it is time for Salomé to go out again, let it rain, let it rain, let it rain (to the tune of ‘Let it snow…’)

FORGIVENESS, OR WHEN THE UNIVERSE CLOSES A DOOR, IT ALWAYS OPENS A WINDOW

In my last post I spoke of forgiving myself, but recent events have made me think about forgiveness in and of itself. I have come to believe, through personal experience, that the best definition of forgiveness is the one that Byron Katie gives: “Forgiveness is the realization that what you thought happened, didn’t.”

This is true: if I believe someone has done something wrong to me, I can question the belief that they did it to me which invariably leads me to see quite plainly that it had nothing to do with me and it was only I, myself, taking it personally that caused the pain. If someone hits, insults or in some way tries to harm me, I can understand that they are doing the best they can in that moment with what they are believing about me or about themselves (they are striking out against the person they believe me to be, not who I really am). This, of course, doesn’t mean that I will stick around and let them continue abusing me or themselves, but understanding that they are doing the best they can with what they believe in the moment, allows me to see that it has nothing to do with me and therefore there is nothing to forgive.

Voilà an example:

I had quit drinking –let´s say- three months earlier, in other words I still wasn’t emotionally very sober. My mother came over to our house (I was still married then) for supper and she came through the door gaily announcing to my husband: “Fernando, your drinking partner is here because Brianda no longer drinks.” I flew into a red rage MAMA–doubly so, because my husband couldn’t understand what I was so angry about- said a couple of nasty things in a loud voice and stomped off to the bedroom. The thought was: ‘How can she be so cruel’, obviously to me. That scene alone sufficed for years to prove to me how unloving my mother was which, of course, was one of the reasons I was so messed up.

It wasn’t till years later, many years later (after my mother had died, actually), that I questioned that belief, thinking it was time to forgive her. The thought was: she was being cruel. As I viewed the scene, in my mind’s eye, first holding the thought (still rage) and then without the thought (sudden realization and laughter), I saw clearly that her entering announcement had nothing to do with me. It was my mother being her usual flirtatious, playful, man-attracting self that always wanted attention (but only all of it). As I watched the scene play over again and again in my mind’s eye, I felt a wave of love for my mother, a smile spread across my face and a mad desire to run and embrace her took hold of me. I felt so sorry I had treated her badly at that moment. It was then I realized that there was nothing to forgive, there never had been. There was a sadness in my work that day for, when I turned the thought around (I was being cruel to her) I could definitely see that I had been, attacking her directly with every intention of hurting her. But The Work freed me. It freed me to love my mother with all my heart which is my birth right.

Even forgiving myself is understanding that there is nothing to forgive: I can’t know to do any better than I know to do in each moment; when I raged out at my mother, I was still believing all my thoughts. It would be many years before I was freed from this. So when I said in the previous post that I forgave myself, it actually was saying that I1944-1 Poughkeepsie25042014 (2) realized I had done the best I knew how to do with the information I had at the moment and that now, with new information, I would hopefully not repeat the mistake. Slate wiped clean.

So this is what Katie means when she says that forgiveness is understanding that there is nothing to forgive; that we are all, in every moment, doing the best we can with what we believe.

Unfortunately, the person who supposedly (the harm is done, she said, but never specified where or how) suffered the wrong I unwittingly committed, does not feel the same way. For her there is no forgiveness possible. I would not know this for sure (although I suspected it would be so, knowing this person) until yesterday morning when I worked up enough courage to walk into town and enter the café where we gather.

cofAs far as the group went, there was only one person (whom I will call our local Drama Queen because she is always in a state of righteous anger about something somewhere she has found wrong) in the Café and I walked over to say hello. Before I could reach her, she swung around on her barstool and told me she was furious with me because I had fought with the other member of the group and therefore she –the person I had fought with- wouldn’t be coming to the coffee group any more as long as I was there, and therefore the Drama Queen would never see her again. I politely, but firmly, set the story right (I did not fight with her, I made a mistake and she was apparently hurt by it) and told her not to worry, that it would be me quitting the group so the other friend could come. I realized, in that moment, that I had made a decision.

The ironic thing about this scene is that the person whom I hurt and was not going to come to the café any more, can’t stand the Drama Queen who was so bitterly lamenting that she would never see her again (something ridiculous as they live in the same town and if they were friends they could visit each other; but they are not even friends). Anyway, I sat alone and drank my coffee and then left.

WINDOWStrangely, as I walked home, the thought of not going to the café every morning for coffee didn’t weigh me down; on the contrary, I felt lighter. Inside, there was a conviction that the Universe never closes a door without opening a window, and all of a sudden I began looking forward to what might come next. Yes, during the afternoon, I had a couple of down-thoughts (I won’t have the group to buy presents for when I travel any more, and there will be no birthday celebration for me on the 1st of August this year) and a slight feeling of loss swept through my chest thinking of the friend who will not forgive, but on the whole I felt pretty good. During the afternoon, I wrote to the coffee group and explained the situation without going into details, and announced that I would be retiring from the group out of respect for the ‘injured’ party who had been there long before me.

One friend answered, it was the artist and sculptress. She jokingly suggested that instead of a café group we form a restaurant group and invited me to join her and some painter friends for lunch the following day (today). I gratefully accepted, and there it was: new beginnings. Added to that, a dear friend who reads my blog, alerted by the last post, emailed me to let me know she was there if I needed anything. That felt so sweet that grateful tears filled my eyes.

img_5192This morning I went to another café (where the coffee is slightly more expensive but much, much better) and had a jolly conversation with a woman who was visiting from a nearby village (in French!). Then at noon, I met the Artist lady and her friends, spent a delightful two hours and had a delicious lunch. C’est la vie, what to do, that’s life!