Why I Try Not To Look Backward. Mostly.

img_1868“For those of us with an inward turn of mind, which is another name for melancholy introspection, the beginning of a new year inevitably leads to thoughts about both the future and the past.” Michael Dirda

Sitting in a quiet living room, I’m finally settling down from the busiest Christmas we may have ever had. Why busy? Grandchildren. Specifically, a two week old, plus our bonus grands. There was a Paw Patrol fire truck, an Our Generation doll, lots of Legos, infant toys, candy, and noise. I usually take lots of photos, but to be honest, once the kids and grandkids arrived, the chaos was a little overwhelming, so I just rode the wave and tried to be present (I also managed to finagle rocking the baby during dinner. At seventeen days old, her coos made for excellent dinner conversation).

Amid all this, my father-in-law had brought a bag of old family VHS tapes. It was his intention that we all sit and watch. He even brought a VCR player since we no longer have one in the house. Now, you’d think I’d be all about sitting and watching my kids, who are now in their twenties, open the Thomas the Tank Engine train sets and American Girl dolls they got for Christmas when they were little. But I wasn’t. Not only was I not all about it, I was quietly but adamantly opposed to this activity. Why?

Because I just cannot allow myself to look back. I can’t. Hell, I already had all of our VHS tapes converted to DVD, but I haven’t watched a single one. As soon as they arrive in the mail, I organize and store them. Seems I can do the work of putting them in chronological order, that’s brain stuff. But pop them in the DVD player that we keep in the house so I can watch Harry Potter and Broadway musical DVDs? That’s a pass.

For what reason, I wonder?

There is a price to be paid when you choose to love. In this case, it’s my parental love, but I think that the same thing happens to loves that are romantic, or platonic, or familial. When you love someone with your very soul, and you walk alongside them for a lifetime (or what may only feel like a lifetime), to look backwards just reminds you of time spent. Of the grains of sand that have already fallen to the bottom of the hourglass. Of the years that are gone.

When I look back, I cry. It’s just that simple.

I don’t need a video to remind me what my children looked like when they were five- I can see my son, running alongside his border collie Trixie as she herded him in our back yard, his blond hair flying in the breeze. I hear my older daughter’s sweet little voice singing along to a Mickey Mouse cassette tape we kept in our bright red Ford Escort. I recall with utter clarity what the younger daughter looked like in the wedding dress I made for her sixth Christmas, complete with veil and silk flower bouquet. I remember their giggles when I tickled their piggies, and their cries when I pulled glass or sticker burrs out of the soles of those little plump feet; or when knees were skinned, requiring a mommy’s kiss and a Peanuts bandaid.

Their hurts are more significant now. The stakes are higher. The wounds deeper.

 

Sometimes, there’s mascara on their pillows after a visit. If you’re the parent of a child in his/her twenties, you may have experienced this. She comes for a Christmas visit, all the way from Los Angeles, where her life looks wonderful, complete with lots of Instagram photos of cocktails with friends, acting and producing projects, her sweet dog, hikes. Lots of smiles. She insists she’s happy, and you know it’s true- but you also know that she got her final divorce papers in the mail just days before the holiday. You understand that a seven year relationship with a drug addict is finally, blessedly over. And you know that she’s grieving. That she knows what’s best, but that she also has to hurt a bit. And so…you find mascara on the pillowcases in the guest room when you go to strip the bed.

I don’t need any help in grieving for my children. No old VHS tapes are necessary to get the tears flowing, you know?

 

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: watching your youngest give birth to a beautiful baby girl in the very same week that the other was opening the packet of papers from the county of Los Angeles. This is the child who had struggled to find her place in the world, who second guessed every decision she ever made, whose anxiety over making the wrong decision about career has held her hostage since high school. I got to be with her for all of her labor, with her dear partner at her shoulder and me at her knees, helping to hold her legs up as she pushed out an exquisite little peanut with black hair. That daughter knows who she is, now.

I shed some tears then, too.

We regained a relationship with my son after a period of estrangement. He was back with us for Christmas. Alone and finally looking healthy and happy. There hasn’t been a day since our reconciliation that I have not looked to Heaven and sent up a thank you.

 

And so…with all that emotion swirling around in my spirit, with gratitude and grief and trepidation and joy, did I really need to look back? Did I want to? NO. I did not. I knew that sitting in a sentimental place from 25 years ago would tip the scales, that I would become an incapacitated blubbering mess.

Forward. Ever forward.

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The problematic VHS tapes.

And yet for days now, my dreams have been…backwards. Having left the classroom four years ago, I find my dream self back in the classroom, helping first graders sound out words or directing high schoolers in a competition play. I look down to see a nursing baby at my breast. I see and hear myself singing, something I have rarely done since my vocal injury in 2011. My grandmother, June, keeps visiting. She died from breast cancer in 1982, but she’s been coming to me in all different forms: chemo-ridden, in her forties and wise, in her twenties and vibrant…all dreams from ago. My slumbering, defenseless brain and heart are taking me backwards when my wakeful, cautious self says no to looking behind.

I think my dreams are trying to tell me to embrace the past, while being open to the future. Maybe my heart is telling me to risk a peek back. I don’t quite feel ready- so for now the past will stay safely ensconced in the VHS tapes that now sit in our garage, awaiting digital transfer. And safely, forever and ever, ensconced in this mother’s heart. No rewinding necessary.

Mom of a Different Time

On a Sunday in early May, what I thought was an early birthday brunch ended up being the day I found out I am to be a grandmother.

This is not a title that sits comfortably on me. In fact, I have been dreading it for years, relieved that my older two kids planned to have kids much later if at all, and assuming the youngest would at least wait until she was married and settled.

The Universe has a sense of humor, though. What I have been planning is five years of travel and adventure and completely obligation-free Saturdays, weekends for sleeping in and drinking mimosas. Maybe with my daughter.

Now I am looking at a complete shift in identity. I am now “Grandma.” I utterly and unequivocally refuse that title. Perhaps I will be “Nonny” or “Lolly” or some such thing. But not “Grandma.” I couldn’t bear it.

I have several friends who are already grandmothers. They post sweet photos of squishy little faces, all cuddled up in Grandma’s arms. They have, you know, shirts that say grandma stuff. They swear it’s awesome. The best thing ever. Pure Magic. Which, of course, what I try to live, a purely magical life.

I had grandmothers. I had two completely beautiful grandmothers. You know what they were, though? Old. They were old. To a little girl, they looked ancient. I don’t want to be seen as ancient.

When my daughter and her beloved left our house that spring day, I told my husband as he held me, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” His reply? “Are you ready to help your daughter be a good mother, though?” Yes. Yes, I am.

And so, after a few days of mulling, I got excited, really excited about the sweet little peanut who will come into our lives soon. I am in love with this baby. I talk to my daughter’s tummy; I stare longingly at other infants, so anxious to hold this one am I; I window shop in baby departments, and I have a countdown to due date app loaded on my iPhone. I felt her flutter, and that was an enchanted moment like nothing I’d ever felt.

Grandmother…and yet, still mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

Motherhood of young adults who are in their twenties is a whole different level of parenting. Skinned knees give way to broken hearts. Allowance shortfalls are now being unable to quite make rent. Not getting along with an algebra teacher has morphed into coaching an adult child how to deal with an abusive work relationship. Romances have moved beyond the land of “check yes or no if you like me” into the complex realm of co-dependence and infidelity.

Of course, the first step of this change is the college experience. With each child, I worried when we dropped them off at their dorm rooms. With the eldest, our consternation was much about her roommate, a reclusive and unfriendly gamer chick who stayed up late into the night, keeping Hilary awake and groggy. We worried whether she was making friends (she was), partying too much (she wasn’t), and studying enough (she most definitely was). I fretted about bugs in her dorm room and the quality of the food offered on her meal plan. I worried whether she would have the stamina to sustain her choice of major as she worked her way through the grueling audition process that is collegiate theatre. Eventually, she bought a car, changed boyfriends, and started being cast in phenomenal roles that challenged her as both artist and woman.

And yet…she fell deeply in love with a young man who played her romantic love in a play, and we watched as fantasy became reality. Red flags were showing everywhere, and her father saw them almost immediately. It took me a bit longer, though. Our daughter was in love with a drug addict. As a parent, you’re almost helpless. I would say it just  feels like you’re helpless, but it’s actually true. You’re helpless. We pointed out the dangers: disappearing money, stolen debit cards and checks, evictions and creditors, a totaled car, even jail time for theft. Our daughter was so convinced her love would be enough to conquer all. Until the day it wasn’t, and reality hit her like a tsunami.

All you can do, then, is to hold your daughter close when she needs to cry, give her space for quiet when she needs to think, and the sure knowledge that her family is standing by to help her put herself back together.

Christmas 1995

The next child falls into a depressed isolation in his dingy dorm room at the east Texas college that no one told you was in financial crisis and would soon be shuttered, and you begin to question where you went wrong as a parent. You’re sure that your childhood role models of family perfection, Greg and Marcia Brady, never struggled like this at college, that they made it to every class with their shiny hair intact and their books perfectly organized. He’s just far enough away that you can’t get to him easily, and when he comes home, he’s hurt and angry, feeling abandoned, when what you were really trying to do, as a parent, was show him your faith in his independence and courage.

That one also dives deep into a couple of troubled relationships, also sure that his love would be enough to conquer all. Again, Tsunami.

Texas 2

And there’s the baby, who, by luck of the draw, ends up in upper classman apartments instead of a freshman dorm, has a near brush with dorm room forced sex, is panicked by the pressure to choose a major, and so flees to Australia to be an au pair in what turns out to be a house run by an unkind mother who refuses to provide her nourishing food, all the while eating her own Hello Fresh food service meals. If you thought your son was too far to reach, your daughter is even farther. She falls in love with a 38 year old man and stays Down Under for two years, then comes home heartsick, a bit bruised in spirit by what turned out to be a pretty controlling bloke.

Then, thank all the heavens and gods and goddesses, she returns to school and meets a good young man, falls in love, gets pregnant, and makes you a Lolly.

It is so, so hard to bite my tongue when I see my young adult children making decisions that might come back to bite them: car purchases, job changes, lovers, debt…

When my kids were little, my husband and I managed their income, their spending, their friendships, their schooling, their hobbies. I don’t mean we dictated, but we drew boundaries: only two after school activities (to prevent exhaustion), sleepovers only where we knew the parents (to prevent abuse), supervised spending (to stave off wastefulness). We worked to lay a foundation of love and confidence.

Now we watch as they test that foundation. They crack it, but it seems to hold. They move forward, sometimes with grace and sometimes with grief, but always forward. Their love is more precious to me now because it’s been tried and tested in the fires of anger and forgiveness, tug and release, and lessons learned. Not just their lessons, but mine, too.

I have learned to have faith in my children.

Now, I too move forward. Can’t wait to meet my sweet granddaughter, Hazel Elizabeth.

Back of Family

Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

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There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

dandelion 2

 

 

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