Wednesday, May 26, 2010
It happened. You went and pissed someone off.
He may or may not think that you're a selfish, egotistical jerk. She may or may not think that you're a rude, thoughtless dolt. Oh, this person may or may not be thinking it, all right.
Despite this, I am reasonably certain that I can assure you all or most of the following: you will not be stabbed in the shower; squirrels and children alike will not heckle you as soon as you step outdoors; your heart will not rot from within because of your irredeemable vileness; the sun will not shrivel and dissolve into a sticky, boiling sludge because of all the international venom directed at you; there is no life-sized voodoo doll of your person with giant pins stuck all over it; your entire town will probably not turn their backs upon you in one collective, community-wide snub. If you are someone who likes to please, and those of us homo sapiens who are not sociopathic narcissists have this survival instinct to a greater or lesser extent, it can feel pretty cataclysmic sometimes when you know you've pissed someone off. Depending on the sort of home you grew up in, you might think that you can control the outcome of situations if only you avoid stepping on any toes. Don't talk to Mom before she's has her first cup of coffee; don't mumble around Dad. The problem is that you can't control most outcomes and in life, toes will be trod upon, intentionally and inadvertently. Sometimes the right thing to do is apologize. Sometimes, though, you will be expected to even if you didn't do anything wrong. Or you did do something "wrong" but it wasn't really wrong because it was was well-intentioned, honest or unavoidable. This guide is for those times.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assert that it's kind of good that you want to please. Kindness and sensitivity are good qualities. At the very least, society would be pretty unpleasant to live in if we all just lived by our own whims. You may have noticed something about those who don't care about pleasing others: they can be very unlikeable. This is the sort of person who lacks empathy and compassion, who, if you were to say, "Hmm, you know, it rather hurts me when you try to run me over with your car," would say, "Really? Too bad because I enjoyed that and so I'm going to continue," as he gleefully puts the car in reverse to plow you over from a different direction. Not literally but figuratively. You are not this kind of person, despite the fact that someone might currently be pissed at you. The person who is pissed at you might make you feel like you tried to run him over with your car because, frankly, it might feel that way to him. You didn't. (Right? If you did, go loiter somewhere else.) What's an emotionally thin-skinned person to do when your natural instinct is to throw yourself on the ground and beg for forgiveness?
Give yourself a time-out
Take a moment. Let the feeling wash over you. The fear in the pit of your stomach, the jitteriness. You're scared of it? I understand. Still, sit with it without judgment. Give it a name: scared, nervous, rejected. The feeling gets worse if you try to ignore it or push it away. Feel it and release it. The reality of the situation is that it's not so awful, right? No rhinoceros is chasing you with steam coming out of his flared nostrils. You're likely feeling fear; the problem pleasers have is that of proportion. We take pissing people off to be much more monumental than it probably needs to be. So take a time-out before you respond.
Keep things in perspective
Was what you did really that bad? Was it intentionally hurtful? If it was, did it need to be said or done? Is it the end of the world? Remember that rhinoceros from above? I read something from a Buddhist monk once where he said that the height of suffering and pain is self-absorption. This is to say that when you lack perspective and connection, everything is life or death. We're uncentered. The fact of the matter is that the world keeps spinning. The sun rises and sets every day, even if your friend Nancy has been distant and the librarian gave you a dirty look for some inexplicable reason. Life goes on. Your monkey mind will chatter all kinds of nonsense into your ears if you let it. Instead, breathe in, breathe out...
Think of the most carefree person you know, the one who seems to skip everywhere she goes, is quick to laugh, lives with an infectious joie de vivre. Let's call her Didi. Imitate her. When you have pissed someone off and it's not really your fault but your stomach still hurts and your throat is all dry, imitate Didi. What does it feel like inside to be Didi? Kind of awesome, right? Even if it is all an illusion, even if Didi is hopped up on happy pills and punches her pillows at night, imitate the illusion.
Talk it out
Call a neutral friend, one who is supportive of you but also honest. Ask if you could have a little bit of her time while you talk through an issue with her. If she's a real friend, she'll be honored that you care about her opinion. Try to present the situation with fairness and as much honesty as you can muster. Chances are, you'll feel at least 63 times better after talking to a friend. You'll have perspective; your burden will be lighter.
Be gentle with yourself
The pleaser's natural impulse often is to add to the pile-on. "He's right! I am a no good, self-centered loudmouth. He forgot to add that I am also impatient and worthless. Let me add that to the list." Somehow we have the notion that beating ourselves up is necessary, even purifying. It's not. It's just adding an extra coat of pain that you don't need. Why not turn that desire to please inward a little? Be gentle and kind to yourself. Don't accept meanness, least of all from yourself. Give yourself an extra iced tea, take a walk after dinner, go to the beach. A little gentleness goes a long way.
Write it out
Writing out your feelings can be very cathartic. Allow yourself to write without editing, without your inner-critic. Just write it out, warts and all, and tear it up or burn it. Imagine your worries dissolving as the paper disappears.
Do not apologize!
If you have clarity that you did nothing wrong, please don't apologize. Even if you're just apologizing to get someone off your back, it causes harm to your self-esteem (and gives a bully a sense of victory) if you apologize for something you didn't do wrong. It sucks to say, "I'm sorry you feel that way," but sometimes that's the best you can do. Apologizing when you didn't do anything wrong is like apologizing for existing. Be kind, be compassionate, but don't do it!
Ask questions and learn
Is there something to take away from the experience? Are you gravitating toward people who demand apologies a lot? Are you someone who miscommunicates a lot and creates misunderstandings? What could you have done different? What could you do different in the future? Calm your mind and see what emerges.
To sum up: if you did something wrong, apologize, If you didn't, don't. In any case, the world will keep spinning, gravity will still be in effect, and no angry mob is likely going to chase you out of town with flaming sticks.
It's time to move on.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
"Are you one of those PETA people?"
If you've done outreach for any length of time, this question will be familiar to you. It's usually accompanied with defensive body language and a frown. I'm sure that it sounds strange when I assure the people asking me that I probably dislike PETA every bit as much as they do, if not more. People are a lot more receptive once they hear this. This is because of what I've come to call the PETA Effect.
When you have small enough numbers and your goal is to spur a dialogue that motivates people into adopting major internal and external shifts, it helps to be at the top of your game. As vegans, we're supposed to be shining examples of excellence from head-to-toe but not too much because then the scale tips more toward "goody two-shoes sitcom parent from the 1950s" and that's just annoying. Vegan ambassadors are supposed to be great examples but the problem is that we're all, you know, human. As such, we all have areas of weakness. I know that sarcasm is my default coping mechanism, I'm quick to anger and my husband has told me many times that I could use a smidge more patience. Realizing that perfection is both unattainable and undesirable, I strive to just do better than my worst instincts would dictate if they were in the driver's seat. I do occasionally just hand my wild-eyed, unreasonable, sort-of-insane self the keys while my better self happily takes a break in the passenger's seat but it's rare these days. She's a maniac behind the wheel and I always end up having to apologize for her. She was not created from too many plant antioxidants or Morrissey albums: she is part of me with or without my veganism.
It's estimated that vegans in the United States are currently rocking out at one percent of the total population. While it makes my pulse quicken just a little to think of that many vegans in one place - imagine how much fun we would have swapping ghoulish tales of communal family Thanksgiving meals! - it still, really, is pretty paltry given that it can only mean that non-vegans are at about 99% of the population. There are scant few of us despite the exceptionally big splash we have made on the world at large, which is very encouraging, of course. Vegans are referenced in popular culture, are brought up in every day conversation, are a tiny demographic given a disproportionate amount of consideration by big business. Much of this is due to PETA's long shadow, but it is also because we're a dynamic, vibrant community of movers-and-shakers. We're culture builders, small but mighty. What other subcultures are given as much consideration? Do origami enthusiasts have so much influence on popular culture and public discourse? LaRouchians? Wiccans? Vegans are uniquely both apart from and of the larger communities in which we live and we leave our mark on these communities in countless ways: on menus, in public policy debates, on library shelves. Given this, and given that people in general have very short attention spans, whatever is said loudest is usually what is remembered. Thus, I would like to suggest that PETA's promotion machine just take a little retreat somewhere. Maybe they can go to Vermont or northern California for a long weekend, maybe even a week. While there, they can meditate until their last "go naked!" Tourette's Syndrome-like impulse has been purged from their minds, do team building exercises that do not include brainstorming novel ways to piss off herbivores and big game hunters alike, and come back when they're not spewing out an endless stream of random nonsense like the proverbial crazy guy on the park bench. Would that be too much to ask? They can learn to take deep cleansing breaths whenever they feel the urge to put up a billboard with an ill-conceived, sophomoric double entendre. They can learn to do finger mudras instead of hitting the send button whenever it's time to send out the latest Sexiest Vegetarian Alive contest press release. They can learn to visualize successful, creative and meaningful campaigns that don't involve shaming or exploitation. They will leave Vermont or northern California refreshed, revived, ready to use their millions effectively.
A woman can dream.
The problem with PETA is that they put the wild-eyed, unreasonable, sort-of-insane person in the driver's seat way too much of the time and the rest of the world's vegans are expected to apologize for this. Apologize for this while never apologizing for our own passionately held values. For every smart, creative and truly helpful campaign PETA creates, there are dozens more they release into the world screeching like fireworks, like feral, poop-flinging, misanthropic banshees. "Look at me! Listen to me! I don't even know what I have to say but I want you to listen to it! Look: boobies! Go veg, you disgusting, fat schlub! Aaaah!!! Vegetables will make you skinny! Booooobies!" Anything clever or useful gets buried under a barrage of ridiculous stunts. Why is this? Because somewhere along the line, like that self-centered jerk you broke up with as soon as you developed common sense, PETA decided that what works best for them is not only in their best interest, it is their main decisive interest. And what works best for PETA is to get their name in front of the public: it is not to save the most animals, to challenge prevailing attitudes, to create a less violent world. If it were, they wouldn't use lowest common denominator tactics (roughly 60% boobies, 30% insults, and 10% messaging of unidentifiable purpose) that cause so many people to reject their message immediately because they cannot abide the delivery. The ethical argument is handily on their side but because they use such abrasive, abusive tactics, they lose that clear advantage and place themselves instead on the side of bullies and tyrants. If other vegans are painted by the same brush by the public at large as PETA, and we are, so be it.
To the public mind, PETA represents the views of all vegans, thus we are always needing to undue their damage example after example. We inherit the burden of proving to the omnivorous world, as if they weren't already resistant to the idea of reevaluating their own privileges, that even though we are a mere one percent of the population, PETA does not speak for all of us or our values. We are not all feral, poop-flinging, misanthropic banshees. I have a dear friend who is Catholic: do I assume that she is bombing clinics and stalking abortion providers in her spare time? No, because she's not. The issue is that there are many, many more Catholics than vegans so even though the behavior of a few might create some presumptuous beliefs about Catholics, there are enough of them that they are perceived as unique, specific individuals. We don't have this same luxury as vegans.
This is not to say that we should all walk in lockstep. The more of us who can reflect to the world that we are unique individuals with diverse opinions and interests, the better. What PETA's doing is not this, though. They are in a truly bizarre position of being perceived as "radicals" while what they're really doing is reinforcing much of the status quo (fat people suck, they are stupid and lazy) and pushing for welfare reforms that are not too far removed from the prevailing attitudes. PETA is so predictable and lazy thinking with their attention-seeking escapades, usually the very antithesis of anything clever and penetrating, that they have created a white noise that they need to shriek ever louder above in order to be heard. And with their publicity seeking, they have also strategically painted themselves in the corner, unable to generate interest in nuanced, effective campaigns. This is entirely their fault. Consumption of animals is not lower than it was in 1980, when PETA was founded. This says to me that PETA, as probably the most well-known animal advocacy organization alongside HSUS, should be reevaluating their strategies.
I understand that a good many dedicated, hard-working people with heartfelt convictions work for PETA. They came to PETA to work on behalf of animals, to try to improve their lives. The beast that PETA has become, though, is different than the sum of its parts. Over the years, PETA has become a mirror through which we see all our cultural prejudices, obsessions and superficialities reflected back at us, just with a twist of vegetarianism. It is not PETA's fault that we live in a dumbed-down, misogynist and shallow culture: it is their fault that they adopt these same values with their outreach instead of trying to create an altogether new paradigm. Yes, they get media. Is this always good? If it makes people think that vegans are a bunch of flaky, half-crazed bullies, then my answer would have to be no. If their tactics were crude and mean-spirited but effectively managed to save a lot of animals' lives, I would have to evaluate that. With the prominent message one of shaming and exploitation rather than one that both challenges and encourages, they do not get much mileage past the initial attention they generate. This is a huge waste of a lot of money, time and dedication.
The PETA Effect has come into existence because they have cynically decided to not only accept the terms dictated by the worst aspects of the mainstream world, but to be a part of it. Instead of questioning misogyny, they wallow in it. Instead of thoughtful, insightful analysis, they have women citing statistics while stripping on camera. Instead of rejecting the notion that we all need to be young, slim, and, more often than not, surgically enhanced to be attractive, they embrace it fully, and they also tell us that objectification for the "cause" is a worthy endeavor. They tell a nation already deeply battered by this message that if you are not young, slim and conventionally attractive, you are worthless and disgusting. What does this have to do with compassion to animals? How does this improve a battery chicken's life? How does this make the skeptical public more receptive to questioning their values? It doesn't.
So, please, PETA, take a little retreat. You deserve it! The media will still be here when you return, I promise. Then you can try something new, something truly shocking for PETA: challenge the deeper privileges and attitudes that set the stage for exploitation, disconnection and violence. Can you imagine what you could accomplish with your budget and dedication? Maybe then you'll realize your potential and the PETA Effect will actually come to mean something else, something positive and powerfully forward-thinking. Until then, PETA, please remember the rest of us and keep the lunatic out of the driver's seat.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
My sweet boy,
This is one crazy planet.
You know all about the galaxies and solar systems and you share with me amazing new facts about obscure space-related trivia every day, that, honestly, I'm not always listening all that well to because I've got a million other thoughts that seem to always be bubbling over on the front burners. But that's not all. I know that your brain and spirit are nearly bursting with enthusiasm for what's out there: nebulas (oh, my goodness, they are actual star nurseries!) and the unfathomable vastness of space and black holes. It's just that thinking about space has always made me feel a little queasy in much the same way that I feel when I contemplate the idea of eternity. That when I die, I could very well be gone forever, registering no more than the merest of blips in the universe, if that. Space makes me think of death, of an incomprehensible, limitless, unearthly place, of the ultimate black hole. This might be why I blank out when you talk about space, my sweet boy: it scares me. Death scares me to, well, death. What gets to me the most, I guess, is how much I love this life. I love sitting here and drinking tea, writing in our sun room in this sweet home our family created together. I love the cardinals singing outside now that it's springtime and watching you skip down the street, your hair whooshing. I love your father and how much he still adores me, despite knowing what a mess I am. I love my amazing friends and your little smudgy nose and the way our little lilac bush scents the whole back yard. I am not ready to be sucked into that void or melt away into a pile of bones. The idea that I'd never hold your hand or hear you laugh again, ahh, it's just too much. Loving so much can be bittersweet sometimes.
How can I put this? We humans are a bunch of colossal fuck-ups. Okay, don't say that word. We're screw-ups. As you and you friends run on the playground at school, oil is gushing out onto the Gulf of Mexico, a thick black pool of unctuous, stinky poison shooting out. Aquatic birds, fish, gone. As you draw me pictures of the space ship you created in your mind, your beloved whales with their enormous hearts, dazzlingly bright dolphins and elderly sea turtles that successfully dodged tiger sharks succumb to the volcanic deluge of crude oil. This is why we don't watch the news; I can't bear to let you see, with your pure, trusting heart, what we foolish grownups have wrought yet again. The world is going to worm its way into your awareness, though, and then I fear that you'll hate me for being part of it. After more than a year without one, we have a car again. Although this car takes you on day trips to the forest where you go on UFO crash site explorations and weekends away to Michigan with friends, this car also means that we're officially more a Part of the Problem than we were before. Life is full of compromises, that's a cliché you'll hear a lot in your lifetime. Isn't that lousy? I'm not so keen on these sort of compromises. They feel like lies, like a slow, settling cynicism. Being an idealist will break your heart sometimes, not at all once but bit by bit, guitar strings being snapped. The beauty of it is, though, is that really, to survive with your spirit intact, it's simple to just re-string, next time with more resilient, supple strings.
What the hell am I talking about?
I guess that this is part of life, reconciling the kindheartedness and vitality and impossible beauty with the child abuse and cancer and sea lions covered in oil. Is this why we think we need to suffer to succeed, to internalize the drama of this endless conflict? When I just return to the breath as countless gurus have patiently reminded us or get to the calm feeling behind the knot in my stomach, I am forced to return to this very moment, and the scale tips in favor of beauty again or least it all becomes much more bearable. This exquisite life, this irredeemably flawed world: somehow, it snaps together. Trust me. You have to work at it sometimes, but the act of allowing these two powerfully dichotomous parts to coexist, or at least accepting that they do, will help to bring you peace of mind. Go with the flow, as they say, but make waves where you need to in order to live your truth. Life doesn't need to be hard, though. Please remind yourself this: life doesn't need to be hard. Self-created suffering will not bring you redemption. Self-created suffering will bring you, yeah, you guessed it...suffering. Wisdom, too, once you break the cycle.
Back before you were born, I worked at an animal shelter for five years. I would see the absolute lowest forms of humanity - the people who would set cats on fire and fight dogs for fun and profit - alongside the very best, the pinnacle of humanity. These are the people who would be outside in the middle of January trying to rescue strays on the streets, the ones who seemed to radiate with kindness. For every person who would call the city to file a complaint about the senior citizen who was giving bread crumbs to the pigeons, there was a person collecting the bread crumbs. For every monster who would fight a dog, there was a person who wanted to adopt that dog, no matter if he was missing an eye, how scarred his muzzle was. The dogs and cats themselves were peerless teachers. The dog who'd been kept chained outside all his life, frost-bitten and malnourished, he would still wag his tail when a stranger would walk into the kennel. He'd known only the smallest measure of kindness, maybe none at all, but he still saw the best in us. I saw cats who'd been set on fire, rubbing their raw skin against the wire cage, purring with delight at seeing a person come into the room. (One stranger returns my smile with a dirty look, doesn't thank me for holding open the door, and I am ready to write off all of humanity: I'm still learning about optimism, grace and forgiveness from the shelter animals.) I think that the world is a forgiving place, too: humanity has just got to stop committing acts that require so much forgiveness so much of the time.
Kindness, patience, lightness: I'm working on it, my sweet boy.
You, on the other hand, will walk up to strangers and hand them dandelions. You will tell children at school who are being mean to you that you just want to be friends. The part of me that has been so hurt by the world wants to scream, "Don't do that! Do not give anyone the power to reject you," because I can't stand the thought of anyone trampling your kindhearted, trusting nature. I have worked very hard to become more thick-skinned, less vulnerable to others. I have failed miserably. I see your wide open heart and I wince in recognition and as your mother because all I want to do is protect it. I am learning to trust that beneath it all, you can bounce back from rejection, that you will find others who will happily accept your dandelions, your friendship. You are resilient and strong and still compassionate. You are teaching me, like the animals in the shelter, that we can be all of the above.
I started this letter thinking that I could share some wisdom but I just realized that you are the one teaching me. There are agonies in this world, really, really horrible things. There is tremendous beauty, grace. You can survive the former and I hope you will continue to seek out the latter, a plant reaching toward the sun. Yes, oil is pouring into the ocean and it's going to take a lot of work but we'll fix it, somehow. Somehow. We all are imperfect, even you, with your gorgeous dark eyes, your angelic profile. We all make compromises, even you with your pure spirit. It's part of being a fully realized person. Just keep reaching toward the sun, my sweet boy.
I love you,
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
In case I didn't know things had changed around here, there are reminders scattered about that are very hard to miss. For one, there is the bathroom. We have just one in our house and it is now occasionally occupied by a fourth individual. A mere 25% increase in this case is something truly and personally felt. At night, there is often some reality show with people (professionals? celebrities?) competing (dancing? singing?) on in the other room, and there are the dog-eared, pulp-y paperback novels on the bed in the extra bedroom. Oh, and there was also that reminder when we accidentally fed the neighborhood squirrels kishka. Kishka, an Eastern European dish, is a matzo meal mixture stuffed in a cow intestine casing: it is something so profoundly not vegan that, years ago, when I asked my happily omnivorous grandmother what that weird plasticky wrapper was around the stuffing, she told me, her expression wan, "You don't want to know." Our home, needless to say, is a cow intestine-free zone. We fed it to the squirrels inadvertently: the kishka was leftover from my mother's lunch out with a friend and we kept it on the back steps like a shoe with something gross on it that we just didn't want to deal with quite yet. We conveniently forgot about it. So, overnight, the squirrels got the kishka, which might become a code phrase for whenever something happens unintentionally but probably being for the best or at least the best that can happen out of a weird situation. In any case, the thought of squirrels rifling through my mother's carry-out container did provide some amusement. For example, imagining a squirrel with stereotypical Yiddish verbal affectations, "Oy! That kishka was so salty! Did you go to The Bagel? You should've gone to Kaufman's! Tch!" This sort of thing is funny. If you play it right, it has some real mileage as an entertainment device. When your mother has moved in with you, you take what you can get in this regard.
The inevitability of my mother living with us started its process about twelve years ago, like the mallet hitting the ball on top of a Rube Goldberg contraption, when my father died of a sudden heart attack. Or maybe it was a stroke. The man smoked three packs of Kool's a day and had a host of other habits not exactly conducive to longevity so when he died at 59 we weren't exactly scratching our heads in confusion, all crying protestations of "But how?" It was more like, "Now what?" Now what. My parents fought pretty much every day of their married life, at least from my vantage point. I think there was once they watched fourth of July fireworks from a blanket at the beach when they seemed to be content sitting side-by-side, and, shockingly, I saw them kiss one time, but other than that, there's scant little to point at as evidence of a joyous union. Still, my mother has always been a creature of habit and my father, and their life together, was a habit. As soon as he died, my mother began unraveling to where she is now, living with us. I'm not sure if my father's death and her decline are linked, but she did tell me that she didn't know what to do with her time now that she had no one to fight with every day.
My mother struggled with depression after my father died, wretched feelings of guilt and remorse. She is of a generation and mindset that does not approve of therapy, and group support was out for her as she's also not that sort of person. This was especially hard because after my father's death, she started to cut off ties with any of her friends who were still married. She felt like they couldn't understand her: there was no convincing her that she wasn't pitied, that her friends still wanted to see her out of anything but a sense of obligation. She also couldn't help resenting them. As my mother was a relatively young widow at 55, this led her to further isolation. Talking about her emotions is not comfortable or natural for her, and I'm certain that there were a lot of mixed feelings, residual hostilities toward the husband who died and then guilt because of that. They were supposed to retire and have grandchildren one day. Maybe with fewer stresses they could get along, mellow out, travel more extensively, enjoy their dotage together. His early death was not part of the plan.
After the depression came the headaches. She started having horrible, searing headaches that lingered for days on end. Headaches are such an elusive thing: many kinds have no clear root cause. Unlike with a broken ankle or a sore throat, you have very little evidence other than your word. She became defensive when the doctor couldn't find a cause and the medications he prescribed weren't helping. "Everyone thinks I'm making it up," was what she said to me countless times. "Why would I do that?" So first there was depression and then headaches, and concurrent with that was trouble with communication and an escalating forgetfulness. She would change what she was saying in mid-sentence and expect people to follow what she was talking about. She would say something that seemed to be completely out of the blue but it turned out to be relevant to something we'd talked about days earlier with no prefacing. It was as if she were having a conversation in her own head that she thought others could hear. Clear communication was never her strong suit, and, as my friends with parents on their own downward descents warned me, that sort of thing doesn't tend to improve with time. They were right, of course.
Though my mother was always a little flaky, she was also always very rigorous with her responsibilities. I don't think she ever had an overdraft notice, never paid a late fee, never even had an overdue book. (Once she got a call that a book she knew she'd returned was late so she went to the library and found it there herself, misfiled. I know she showed it to the librarian behind the check-out counter with a victorious smile as her record returned to its untarnished state.) For her to forget things - where she was supposed to meet her friend for lunch, and what time, and was it even that day? - was very unlike her. When I had my son, the event she had seemingly been waiting for all her life, I had a delusory hope that his birth would shake things up in a good way, snap her out of the fog that seemed to widen around her every day. She was overjoyed, of course. My mother loves babies, just adores them, and the fact that this one was her very own first grandchild was almost like gilding the lilly. He was perfection. He was all she ever wanted. He didn't cure anything, though.
Eventually, my mother sold her house and bought a condo closer to where we live. She picked out all new furniture, started from scratch. "For the first time in my life," she told me, "I'm living exactly how I want to live." There was a maintenance worker on call, a good mix of younger and older residents, no lawn to take care of anymore. She had to give up her car right away, though, because even under the best conditions, she was an anxious driver and now she was living on a very busy street. But she had a movie theater a short bus ride away, there was a big bookstore nearby, a drugstore. Most important, her grandson was five minutes away. Everyone knew that this condo was the last step before she'd come to live with us and most of us guessed, given the progression of everything, that it'd be five years or so. Not too far off: it was four years.
The beginning of the end of my mother's independence was probably when she broke her pelvis a couple of years ago. She lost her balance when a bus took off abruptly and she fell off of it. It wasn't a bad break, as the doctors liked to say, but she had to stay in the hospital for two weeks or so while she recovered and did physical therapy. Oh, she was deeply unhappy. She wanted to have an operation to "fix it" and no matter how many times we told her that she should be grateful that she didn't need surgery, that the recovery would be much more long and painful, it didn't seem to sink in. She disliked most of the nurses but reserved the majority of her rancor for the physical therapists, individuals she was certain were there to personally torment and hector her. In addition to the pain, after so many years of living with someone who harshly judged and criticized almost every move she made, physical therapy was too much for my mother to take. She dug in, though, and managed to recover. Her doctor was pleased with her progress, remarking that younger people often have a longer recovery process.
Even though my mother recovered physically, the fall was terribly undermining to her confidence. She fell again last fall and, though there was no lasting injury, her confidence was fully shattered and her resilience was shot. She tried for this past year to continue to live on her own - something she very much wanted to do - but it was becoming too risky, We visited a lot, staying with her on weekends, but we couldn't watch her every move. She kept losing her wallet, her credit cards, her keys. She couldn't figure out how to lock her door. We were afraid she'd be robbed or worse. Like my grandfather, my mother has early-onset Alzheimer's disease, something that's been very hard for me to come to terms with but it is true nonetheless, She has moments of clarity and lucidity and moments of utter confusion. Honestly, between the Alzheimer's and Parkinsonism, a neurological syndrome similar to Parkinson's, as well as her various medications, she has more bad days than good ones. I still see little glimmers of the mom I knew, though; she's still in there. My old mom emerges with her sense of humor, her love of flowers and children, her caring, peacemaking nature. She moved in with us in March.
It has not been an easy transition for any of us except for my son, who enjoys the novelty of having another person live with us. I don't know if my mother and me could be more opposite, temperamentally and in terms of habits. I often struggle with my judgments over her junk food, her television, her being and I dislike this about myself but I also can't seem to help it. She thinks I'm messy and disorganized and I think her priorities are screwed up, So there. I know that my mother - having lived through all that she has - is a survivor but I can't silence this voice that judges her as weak, soft. And it's true, though she has survived a lot, my mother is essentially a soft person, not tough. She's not without fault, but she's kind-hearted, probably the most generous person I know. The part of me that I dislike, the part that is mean-spirited and condemning of her, that's the voice that tyrannized us, the voice of my father, and it makes me wince in recognition. A Buddhist once told me that he enjoys driving in heavy traffic because it's a good test of how completely he is manifesting the qualities of the Buddha. We can be peaceful, kind people when we're not challenged but in the challenging we find what we are made of, we find our default modes of operation. When my mother wants to bring Doritos into my house or leaves the bathroom sink running for the fifth time that day or asks me if I'm giving her the right pills yet again, I'm going to need to try to cultivate the Buddha.
So there's a new character around. And occasionally squirrels will eat kishka in our back yard.