As I get ready for the big event (big for me) this coming Saturday, a book launch for my little memoir about the year I spent teaching English in China as one of the first American foreign experts to have that opportunity, I’ve found myself confronted by very powerful shadows.
The most palpable was that of my artist brother — now dead from alcoholism. He was also an artist and, in our family (meaning my mom) he was THE artist in the family. My work was minimized or mocked, whether it was writing or visual arts. By ridiculing my efforts or ignoring them completely, BOTH of them made sure that I never got “full of” myself. At the same time, they both used me to maintain their lives to a greater or lesser extent depending on how sober each of them might be at any given moment.
My job was to be dependable in case they needed me to enable them, which meant nothing I did could be the most important thing in MY life. My job was to be prepared to shore things up, to listen to them. For neither one was I able, ever, to do anything well or even right. My mother insisted — even after I’d been teaching for nearly 20 years — that I was not a “real” teacher because I didn’t have a degree in education and the students in my classes had a right to expect more. When I shared newsletters from the wilderness park I was instrumental in forming, that had articles I’d written about hiking in that park, my mom said, “I had no idea nature had any meaning to you at all.”
Where was she all my life?
Once, when I was showing some drawings to some of my mom’s friends after Thanksgiving dinner, and one of them said to her, “You must be proud of Martha Ann.”
My mom just turned to me and said, “You did a good job cleaning up the kitchen.” She never looked at the drawings. My mom was a master at making me feel good only when I was helping someone else but even then I could never do really well.
I have dozens of stories to illustrate this in which my mom or brother figure in this way, but there’s no point in relating them here. The point is that these two people still live somewhere in my mind, and in moments like this — when I’m trying very hard to pull things together to do something that is VERY good for me — one of both of them will appear. I know they are not real, I know their power has been defused by death, and yet…
Do we live for our family’s’ approval? I think as children it is very important that approval from them is for the person that we actually ARE. That might be one most important things they can give us. That approval says, “Yes, this is YOU, pursue your talents, refine them, enrich your knowledge, BE yourself.” My mother and brother both seemed to think that to keep me there to function as they needed me to, they had to keep me down, and they conspired to do that. What this says to me tonight of their sense of self-worth is that they knew they had none.
And truly, they did not.
OK, yes, I know I’m 67 years old and my past should be behind me and all that, but the thing is that it isn’t until we push forward toward something we have not pushed for before, or have turned back from in the past even when we wanted it, that we learn a lesson like this.
There are some good songs about this, but maybe not for here (Eminem, “My Mom”). These lines from Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” say it pretty well.
Master of puppets, I’m pulling your strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me, you can’t see a thing…
What matters is what we do ANYWAY.
Survival is the best revenge.