Today is my mother’s 75th birthday. Honoring her from afar is not easy to do. I wish I was there with her to celebrate. Luckily my brother and his partner are, along with her beloved husband, my beau père, so I know she’ll be well fêted.
I thought I’d reflect a little bit on our history together as mother and daughter. It’s been a long, complex and wondrous arc through hard stuff and into healing. There is magic in time, it really makes a huge difference, in all parenting narratives.
The early years of parenting are non-stop, no time to pee, breathe, think or sleep. This segues into the busy years of school, extra curricular activities, friend and relationship dramas, and into the teenage years and young adulthood. If you manage to get to the teenage years without too much drama, mazel tov. Most folks hit serious obstacles in the teenage years.
My family has gone through a lot together, and we’ve had long hard swatches of not very good or kind communication with each other, mostly on my part towards my mother. I cringe when I think of the nasty, blaming letters I used to write to her, ten page nasty things. She’s always tried to understand or be supportive, as best she could, even when she was devastated by what I said or was going through. It’s very difficult when your daughter steps off cliffs into territory that is absolutely not gentle, friendly, clear or what you dreamed of for her. As a mother myself, I know that this is one of the hardest parts of parenting.
My single parenthood and pregnancies were very hard on my parents. They navigated it the best they could. I still didn’t feel supported enough by them. This led me to live with a community that was not the safest place for me or my children. There have been lots of really hard months and years, angry letters and strange interactions over the last thirty years of my being a mother.
BUT, here’s the key thing, my mother NEVER stopped reaching out to me, never stopped trying to connect and bridge the distances between our ways of being and thinking. That tenacity and love for family has been a huge offering. It literally created a bridge over troubled waters; not always a sturdy one, but a place where we could cross over to each other and find our way back to loving and connecting.
The love and constant effort on her part has never wavered. As a daughter who has really gone far out on lots of shaky limbs and hung out near erupting volcanic kinds of situations, that love and effort have made all the difference. I’m so lucky to have such a vibrant, strong and creative woman as my mother.
She’s a feminist, an artist, she’s intelligent, she practices Yoga, Qi Gong, and meditation daily. She helps women navigate the territory of loss around the death of children. She is honest about her feelings, she cares deeply about her family and friends. She makes the effort again and again to get us together and to be real.
I also am happy to share that my mother has a huge retrospective show of her work coming up, full of her perspective and portraits of her/my family. If you are in the San Diego area, I hope you will go to one of these events.
Helen Redman: The Other Side of Birth
San Diego Mesa College Art Gallery
Exhibition: March, 10 — April 14, 2015
Opening reception: Thursday, March 12 from 5-7 pm
Artist’s lecture at 7 pm, immediately following reception in G101
Conversation with the Artist at gallery: Friday, April 10, 1:30 pm
7250 Mesa College Dr., San Diego, CA 92111
Phone: (619) 388-2829
Helen Redman: Through a Mother’s Eye
Women’s Museum of California
Exhibition: April 23 — May 31, 2015
Opening Reception and Conversation with the Artist: Thursday, April 23 at 6 pm
2730 Historic Decatur Road, Barracks 16
San Diego, CA 92106
Phone: (619) 233-7963
Today I just want to say, I love you Mumu and I’m so lucky to be your daughter! I hope we have lots and lots of time to take walks and enjoy being near each other as the next many years of our lives unfold.
The air is thick with smoke from the large fire at Happy Camp. I am several valleys away from this fire, but it is still impacting the skies here. It is smoky in the mornings here where I am on retreat for my Jubilee (50th birthday). Nevertheless, it is extraordinarily perfect. It is quiet, except for bird song, squirrel chatter and lizard movements among the dry leaves. The smoke clears by mid to late afternoon, which is when the wind seems to pick up. My days have taken on a dreamy quality of time moving extremely slowly with no sense of urgency. This is absolutely what I wanted and needed. There is a profound restorative quality to this time. I was just about at the very end of my tank, even my reserves had been used up.
“The skin of the earth
covers its imperfections
Just as my face conceals
my vast uncertainty.
In the dry cracks of the earth
I find that it has bled
from the injuries of man.
The earth has healed itself
through time moving across
its tortured face of skin.
But what shall heal me except
the sun which makes cracks in my face
so that I can come together with my land.”
In the afternoons up here, I walk to the river, moving very slowly, so that I can come together with my land.
When I get to the river, it is cold and has deep pools as well as shallows. I immerse and rejuvenate, alone with the trout, crayfish, birds and water bugs, so that I can come together with my land. Besides immersing myself in quiet and cold water, I came here to do some work. The process of self-examination and hard work of this month of Elul, which is the month that precedes the Jewish New Year called Rosh Hashanah, is always pressing upon me. I’ve written about this before and I wasn’t sure what new things I could say here. My process this year, is of course, WRIT LARGE, because it is not just about a single year, but the last 49 years and my very conscious choice about changing direction and focus. In order to do this, I have to snip the old frayed threads or sew the ragged patches up, so that my body and soul can move into the next part of my brief time on this planet, so that I can come together with my land.
Elul reminds us that life is cyclical. We make mistakes, we grow, we fight, we harm, we love, we fall down and we do these things over and over until we are no longer able to. This cycle is as old as human consciousness. There has always been war, there has always been ugliness. There has always been fear and pain. There has also always been love, and tenderness, hope and reaching for Holiness and Wholeness and more folks working on mending what is broken than folks breaking things.
This cycle, my Mussar teacher gave us a very specific assignment. I’m used to making lists of people in my life I need to ask forgiveness from and I have a practice that is pretty automatic at this point. My teacher asked our class to start the forgiveness work this Elul by forgiving folks who had hurt us for the first ten days. She wanted us to make notations and to do this work internally. There is a daily forgiveness process in the Jewish tradition that is part of the Bedtime Shema, where we grant blanket forgiveness to all who have wronged us and ask that they not suffer on account of any wrong they have done to us. Only religiously observant folks recite this blessing regularly. I attend to it in Elul, but it is kind of automatic and non-specific.
This homework assignment was really different. I had never actually made a list of all the people I needed to forgive. It was not that long, but there were some biggies on the list. I wrote a name down, and then listed the hurt that person had done me. After I completed this part of the process, I started to chant the name of the person and to speak to them and tell them I forgave them for the wrong and the hurt they had done to me, as I did so, tears came and a huge sense of release in my heart. I found myself blessing these folks after I forgave them. I certainly did not expect any of this and it took me by surprise.
For the men who raped me, I forgave them for the harm they did me, but asked that my forgiveness be connected to justice unfolding and for them never harming another person again. I asked the Holy One to please help them to find health and healing and awareness. I’ve done years of work on this territory, in various therapies, and most of the hurt is no longer present for me. There are tiny droplets of pain that re-surface now and then. I can go great swaths of time not thinking on it– “I find that it has bled from the injuries of man. The earth has healed itself through time moving across its tortured face of skin.”
There were two folks on my list that I put aside for later, I am not ready or able to forgive them on some level. I can forgive the men who raped me, but not these folks who betrayed my trust and hurt my family. I will have to get some help from my teachers about these two people and how to not be holding onto this hurt. Elul is not an easy month for me and yet this process is amazingly liberating, even being able to identify that I am not able to release those people, is helpful. It tells me I have work to do. I don’t believe forgiveness is a simple thing or that I have to grant it. In my tradition I do not have to forgive someone until they seek my forgiveness and make amends. My choosing to forgive them ahead of their asking is completely on me and also part of a deeper spiritual practice.
There is enough sticky goo in all of our lives, old hurts and tattered remnants of messy memories and shattered feelings. I would rather be free of these so that I can be of good cheer and good service for this moment unfolding right now. It is late, almost midnight. More musings on how to let go of fear and be more present coming in the next few weeks. For now, though, you don’t have to be Jewish to take advantage of this time, make a list of folks who have hurt you, see if you can forgive them, and see how it makes you feel. Take a chance on letting go of old stuff, so that you can come together with the land, which has no choice but to forgive all the wrongs we do. Did the sun not rise today, did the vegetables forget how to grow? Forgiveness is the nature of earth and we are made of this lovely loamy stardust stuff.
Nicole comes together with her land and your land and any land she can by engaging with it, and then writing about it. This column was written high in the hills as Nicole turned 50 and is now officially “over the hill.” It appeared originally in the Mad River Union on Wednesday, September 17, 2014
The sun is just peeking over the hills of Jacoby Creek. I can’t see it yet, only the light rose watercolor-like wash on the bottom of a few clouds. I’m sitting on the floor in my new, very own room. It’s the first room I’ve had of my own since I was nineteen. I got pregnant that year, so my space has been shared with children and a husband for a long time. There is joy and sadness in this transition. This room belonged to both my daughter and son respectively. They are both adults now and have moved into their own spaces and rooms. I miss them.
And, now there is some time for me, for exploring who I am and will become over the next few years. I still have one son at home and lots of time and energy for him. None of this can adequately convey the profound sense of exaltation and glorious wonder I feel when I step into this space. Let me describe it for you. I have painted the walls white, the room is an attic room and the ceiling is pyramid-shaped and paneled in beautiful lengths of a light-colored wood (I’m no carpenter, so I can’t tell you what kind of wood it is). I won a bid I made on eBay for a fabulously complex red wool carpet from Iran.
I wanted this Persian red rug because the majority of what I plan to do up here is just sit and meditate, pray, study, cry, dream or imagine a world filling up with Peace. In each corner items representing the elements are placed. I’ve got the four directions marked with air, water, fire and earth. Additionally I am putting the symbols for the twelve tribes of Israel; three in each direction so that I am surrounded by my ancestors. My tradition and the basis for life on this planet are represented here in the elements and in these symbols. There is one window in the room between the eastern corner and the northern one. Now the clouds are orange sherbet and the sun will be making its appearance soon. I’m also using this space to write in. My laptop is up here on a small bamboo tray that I move to the side of the rug when I’m not using it. The rug stays free of items, when my tush isn’t on it, it is itself a meditation (the rug!, not my tush).
By the time you read this, we will be in what are called the “Days of Awe” in my tradition. These are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). In this time period, we are granted a few more days to seek forgiveness from those we have wronged and to work on turning ourselves back towards the path of right actions in the world. On Yom Kippur, one of the teachings has to do with the idea of our fate for the year being sealed. I’m not sure I resonate with the idea of my fate being sealed, but I do resonate with the cycle of working on myself and correcting my behavior. I also look at the idea of fate sealing as a sort of template to work with, if I am angry and grumpy, nasty and unkind, my fate won’t seem as good as if I endeavor to be hopeful and cheerful. The practice of self-cleaning began with the new moon of this past month. I’m in it right now; making lists of mistakes I’ve made, folks I need to apologize to and get clear with, lists of my faults, qualities or things I’ve said or done which I am not proud of.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone of Boulder, Colorado, passed on this image in a teaching she gave. I don’t remember who gave it to her, but it’s an ancient idea about the vessel our souls inhabit. On Rosh Hashanah, the Holy One grants us a new vessel, clean and vibrant to hold our self in and to pour ourselves out of. If, we have worked on our stuff, looked at our faults and made an effort to turn back to who we truly are in our hearts than we will not only notice this new vessel, but be enlivened by it. Every mistake we make during the year creates a crack in this vessel, big errors, like hurting other people makes for big holes. This means that by the time Rosh Hashanah rolls around, all that might be left of our vessels could be a shard or two; nothing that can hold water or light or love or laughter. In my tradition, if I do the work between myself and others, on Yom Kippur, the Holy One forgives me for the mistakes I’ve made between myself and myself, between myself and the Divine. Only those I wrong can forgive me for the wrongs I’ve done them.
So, I am endeavoring to do less wrong all the time. It’s actually a pleasure to be on this path. As I apply my intelligence and awareness to the task and work to live my life according to what is true in my soul, I feel lighter and clearer, never close to perfect, but just with a slight bounce in my step and a ready smile on my face. How can I smile when the world is a mess? Will my frowning or crying make it better? I cry in my new room, with the tribes of Israel surrounding me and the Holy One holding me and I sink into the elements which sustain not only me but also which breathe on all the children in every lonely place on this earth. I sit in Bayside California on Iranian wool crafted with flowers and complex curly swirls and send my prayer for peace into the wool and out through my window. Perhaps the sky will hear my cries for Salaam, Shalom. Perhaps you will.
And perhaps, all our collective crying, and praying and working will travel on the elements and reach those not only who are suffering but those who are contemplating hurting others or using violence to resolve their problems. I don’t know for sure, I’m just one woman sitting on her rug hoping while the sun rises.
Nicole lives and sits in Bayside California and hopes wherever you are sitting is a good place. She is wishing you Peace.
This piece is originally from September of 2006 and was published in The Arcata Eye. It is older writing but timeless information and so I share it here since I am actually busy and celebrating the High Holy Days right now. Next week, I will upload more of of my current Jubilee Series, which also deals with the themes of forgiveness touched on in this piece.
I remember when I was a young woman, for a fairly long time, every word my mother spoke triggered an automatic alarm system in my body. It became hard to even listen to a simple “hello” or request to “pass the salt” without feeling like a siren was being sounded. Why? She wasn’t doing anything “wrong,” she wasn’t yelling at me, inordinately demanding, or deranged. Yet, her voice stimulated me in the most intense ways. It’s taken me years to understand and three teenage children of my own raised to figure out some of what this was about.
Why do teenagers (emerging adults) need to lash out? Is it due to the fact that they are experiencing radical hormone surges? This is part of the picture, but not all. My experience as a parent and former emerging adult has shown me that the lashing out occurs as a direct result of their profound need for space to emerge into new beings; much like a butterfly from its cocoon.
Around me all the time, I see and hear stories about parents and emerging adults clashing and creating cycles of wounding words and great harm. I’ve lived this story from all sides. Reasons and recriminations won’t necessarily change the patterns. There may not be a traceable reason for behavior. There are currents and rivers and underground waterways that rule the lives of a young person as they emerge from the domain of their parents. These waterways are anything but subtle, controllable or understandable and they are usually impossible to see or have perspective on while you are in the midst of them. One minute you think you are on dry land and then suddenly you find yourself sinking in a whirlpool. This is how it unfortunately feels to parent an emerging adult and also, how it feels to be parented for that same emerging adult. NOT MUCH FUN!
I have friends and family who no longer speak with their children or parents, siblings or other family members. We are so primed in this society to take everything personally and to HOLD onto all the hurt. Kids will say things like “I can’t deal with you very much at all because you are mentally ill and your parenting of me reflects this,” or they will swear and scream and run out of the room or house. They will sulk and storm about. They will not acknowledge birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, or any number of important things that used to be shared and celebrated. As parents we will go through a full range of emotions and not always or even frequently be able to maintain our equilibrium in the face of all the changes and challenges. This wild ride doesn’t just end when kids move out either. Patterns and problems can emerge now that have very long trajectories.
Also, our children will remember every slight or mishap we make. They will amplify it and remind us of it. This will undermine us if we don’t find ways to address the wrong we did and move through it or on from it and not have it be a broken car horn blaring at all times. When others see us acknowledging mistakes and sincerely apologizing and aiming to shift or change, even if it seems like nothing is shifting, our correct and proper actions do make a difference. Just because an interaction is flawed does not exempt us from attempting to correct the flaw or take responsibility. That’s our job as the parents, to be ON TOP OF IT, not to expect our kids to know or figure it all out. Yes, they need to grow and change, but we set the tone for the way things happen.
Support from others is critical to survive this period of time. When my friends and I speak we go over the incidents or problems we’ve had with our children and remind each other of patterns and what worked or didn’t work with us in similar situations. We give each other the necessary perspective and jettison the brutal words and junk like ballast that has be be emptied so the boat can right itself. We each parent differently and have our own techniques as well. To parent successfully, at this time, requires all the personal skills and reserves a person can find as well as the support and help of others. The goal is to have a relationship with your child, when you are done parenting. It doesn’t mean it will be peachy keen all at once or that it will be easy, but something that allows for a future together is the ideal. That goal is not always achievable, no matter how hard one works, but finding a way through this territory mandates support, lots and lots of support and some kind of fundamental trust and hope, even when there is no reason to be hopeful or trust.
It’s a huge challenge. My own daughter started the process several years before I was ready, way before I even thought I needed to think about this stuff. She has always been at full speed ahead, I call her my comet girl. Yet, for some reason, I was still surprised when things got complicated before she even hit the teen years. I remember one incident where she was screaming at me in our driveway about what a terrible person and mother I was and how I never took proper care of her or understood her or did anything correctly at all. This may have been in response to trying to get her hair dealt with, I have no memory of the actual triggering event. My daughter is now almost 30, so this was quite some time ago. She may have been ten or eleven years old at the time.
My husband told me to walk away from her tantrum. He’d sit there with her in the driveway. I was a wreck, snot and tears falling in equal measure down my face. I had zero perspective on this situation. I was roped into her pain and it was all I could see, the sense of myself being a failure was huge, epic. Later, when she’d stopped screaming and was resting in her room, my husband came and told me I absolutely had to learn to not take her rantings personally. He reassured me that I was a terrific mother and that even though he didn’t understand at all what was going on with our daughter, he knew that my mothering of her wasn’t the issue. My husband is someone who has a very different perspective on parenting than I do and he has MUCH better boundaries. He was hugely helpful in this situation for me and continuously reminded me to not take the ranting personally. I still did, but the reminder also found room inside of me and over time helped.
I cannot honestly say I figured this all out while my kids were in their emerging adult phase. I actually just turned a new corner this year around long standing issues with one of my adult children. So, I don’t want to pretend this is simple or easily shifted. I have spent years in therapy, off and on, addressing the many layers of pain in my life and in my children’s lives. There are lots of “reasons” for folks to have issues, but everyone’s stories are different. Some kids respond very slowly or very deeply to things; you may not even know they are upset for years, others are sparky and shoot off all the time. The trick is to keep saying and reinforcing your love for them while and through whatever intensity or ugliness is unfolding.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that I don’t use the word teenager and prefer emerging adult or emergence. I’d rather be overly cautious and aware about the feelings of others and how we frame these situations and dilemmas can often affect their outcomes. There isn’t anywhere to go with a teenager. They are by definition, frivolous, prone to emotional and physical outbursts and generally regarded and treated as troublesome immature aliens that one has to endure. Most often parents sigh when they say the word and all the making fun of them that goes on in the media only further cages them and our perceptions of them in.
When I say emerging adult, something different happens. There is an implicit acknowledgment that something is growing or emerging. These words are positive and they also support the young person’s desire to be seen, heard and respected. They also reinforce the idea in our minds that our children are practicing and just like their adult parents, they will make mistakes and blunders. If we don’t give them the room they need to do this, we risk the following:
tampering down a volcanic amount of emotion so that it has to explode (this happens anyway, but there are ways to minimize it)
creation of all kinds of strategies to avoid interacting with parents because said interactions are painful and unpleasant for all parties. Not acknowledging the ugly nature of things won’t make that ugliness go away, i.e. Let’s pretend everything is fine and all go out to dinner or to visit gramma… This is a recipe for a disaster.
unhealthy eating and other habits developing as a further way to create space. If meals become a source of conflict then eating disorders may emerge and this pattern can and often is set way before kids are in their teen years
feelings of complete and utter failure and dejection about their ability to ever successfully navigate or complete anything
feelings of shame for their behavior with no idea how to apologize without giving ground which their initial behavior was about creating
increase in secrecy in areas that have previously been out in the open as well as new ways to conceal themselves or their activities which can include and lead to drug use and unsafe sexual practices, diseases and pregnancy
This list could go on and on and it clearly sobering. I want to take a minute to talk about this need for space and the need for boundaries. There is no magic formula here. If you are respectful, have good boundaries, clear, kind and give space you won’t automatically get the results you are aiming for. This whole time in your life and your child’s life is a gigantic adventure and growing experience for everyone. The trick is to find a way through it like characters in a good novel, not a sitcom or murder mystery. We’re aiming for functional adults and relationships that can endure the changes and challenges of life on this planet.
You are allowed and indeed need your own boundaries about what is acceptable behavior. These are the hardest boundaries in the world to maintain and create. They also need to be somewhat permeable so that if they get broken it isn’t the end of the relationship, “pack your bags” and “you’re on the street” kind of thing. That feeling is natural for a parent to have.
As parents we’re acutely tuned to our children’s pain, growth, processes and their attunement to us seems nil. This is where the biggest mistakes occur. They are also attuned to us, but in a different way. Every breath we take and tear we shed looms very large on an internal screen within them. I tried to describe this to my mother twenty years after we very roughly navigated those years together. Her emotions and her voice and her breath even registered for me as if the volume was turned up on the highest setting all the time. I had to physically not hear her voice or be around her in order to hear myself think.
Not everyone has this experience with their parents, but it is true that after a certain number of years living with them, you know their voice patterns, their usual responses and you may naturally feel a little irritated or tired of them. It’s our job as the parents to not get our feelings hurt all the time and take it so personally. It’s a kind of stretching out of the cocoon and since we are all so close together in there, it is inevitable that they will bonk and bump into us in the process.
I will share more about this in the future, but wanted to get this out into the Nicole Zone, for those of you starting this journey or in it now. I cannot say I did it right or even perfectly. I can honestly say that I have relationships with all my parents and all my children and that there is communication and love there. There are also times of stress and confusion, but we have managed to weather those and remember and affirm our love of one another and our ability to be present for each other. My mother has file folders full of all the nasty horrible recriminating letters I wrote her and she also has the ones full of my love. At some point in the future, we’ll probably have a burn the nasty letters day, but both she and I are creators and archival material is valuable and hard to let go of.
I share this to point out, that my mother who is 74 and myself, almost 50 have weathered some VERY serious storms and managed to still emerge in relationship. My daughter and I as well and my older son too have had bumpy rides. It’s all unfolding still, which is the whole point, the long perspective, not the short term when you are looking at family is the one you want to remember, especially when the immediate situation can be very fraught.
I’ll end by sharing a beautiful and very helpful teaching from a friend of mine. When things were at their worst for me with my daughter, my friend Akiva, told me to practice meditating on a future time with my daughter, where she and I would be laughing together or having tea together or making a meal together. Basically he said to focus on any future activity that would be something joyful or at least not miserable. This idea, at the time, seemed a little crazy to me, but it really helped. It set aside a space in my heart and mind for the possibility of a future that I really wasn’t sure would ever happen. I can say that I have laughed with my daughter and made tea and dinner with her many times now and this was not something I thought would be the case when we were in the middle of the storm.
So, dream a little dream or a big one, of yourself and your parent or your child and you finding space and time together that is joyful and less stressful, even if it seems impossible, create that hope and that trust inside your heart and see what opens out from there. Practice and have faith/emunah!
From my Open Heart and Open Hands I wish you great good luck and skill as you venture out into the wild waves!