Mom Hit Us With Her Fist

Mom hit us with her fist.  Hard.

She also hit me over the head

with 1″ thick broom sticks,

I can still feel the dent–

she striped our legs with lathe

or switches, smacking with

either side of her hand,

hitting me with an iron skillet. Cold.

Anything that was handy really—

if she was mad and I was nearby.

Mom slugged me when I was tiny.

I would fly across the room

and land on the furniture,

arms and legs akimbo, stunned.

Or I’d smash into a wall and drop

to the floor in a shriveled pile.

I don’t remember being hugged

or kissed, or having my hand held

gently, kindly, guidingly.

I remember my arm being jerked

one way or another,

lifted off the ground like a rag doll

My shoulder painful, sore.

I don’t remember being loved,

but I remember loving,

I remember loving each of my

two sisters and two brothers,

and even the one who was sent away—

Adopted by strangers,

not spoken of aloud by the adults

in the room, whispered about

with my sister under the woven bedcover

in the chilly darkness at our grandparents,

or in the wagon wheel bunk beds,

When we were lonely and wished for someone

to love us more than a fist.


The following is from an email I sent to a group of new thought ministers, many  of whom wrote to me until there was so much correspondence that I needed to write this to help them understand.  I hope it helps you too.

You are all so very kind.  I heard from so many of you that I was surprised. For many years I didn’t say anything specific or of consequences about the way I grew up.  There was far more difficulty than just the beatings.  There was sexual abuse at the hand of two of my uncles and a babysitter that my mother brought to our house when I was in first grade.  I changed schools 27 times before I dropped out of high school.  I didn’t have contact with anyone long enough to develop supportive relationships.

But I didn’t want anyone’s pity.  I wanted people to see me, and not just the circum-stances of my childhood.  That became something of a habit.  Children who go through these hellish childhoods are treated with little respect and a lot of assumptions.  Charity and pity are funky, awful things that embarrass children and make them different than the other children.  If that wasn’t enough, the last thing I needed as a kid was someone trying to sell me on Jesus’ blood and the salvation of my soul.  You’d think I had dragged these circumstances in upon myself into the deep hole folks acted like I was in.

I was much the same as I am now as a child, and when I could escape the darkness of the attitudes that people around me had, the labels that they wanted to put on me, I was able to see something more possible for myself.  I was tougher than my sister, more self-contained and self-reliant, but I was the oldest and even in the worst circumstances, being the oldest calls a child to take charge for the benefit of the younger children. I learned at a very young age that folks don’t look very far into things, that they are easy to jump to conclusions and don’t see what is right in front of them.

I consider one of the great accomplishments of my life to be that I am profoundly ordinary.  I don’t mean to deny my gifts, or accomplishments, but that the kind of being ‘special’ that draws undue attention for things that were not my doing, well I just didn’t want that kind of attention.  I didn’t live my life depending upon my appearance either.  I like being appreciated for the things I chose to be.  In the end, it is our personal choices that matter.  No one wants to be a victim.  We either let Spirit in, to act as and through us, or we allow the circumstances of our lives to hog the spotlight and bring attention to ourselves for reasons that are neither of our own making or which simply cannot bring us the true Joy of life itself.  I am all for Joy.  That is how I am made.

COMMENTS FROM OPEN SALON

Susanne, I cannot imagine that type of treatment as a child; nor can I imagine a parent doing that to their children. But, I am glad that sisters & brothers were there to comfort, love and support each other.

This is a powerful piece and sends a message of despair that parents can all taken notice of. Thanks for sharing.

Rated for honesty

This is powerful and hints at where you learned to be so kind. I’m sorry it was from suffering.
The prose of brutality serve as the most effective means to stand up to its onward march.
Susanne, I was with you every punch of the way. My mother was much like yours. She beat us with whatever was convenient at the time; wooden ping pong paddles, broom handles were also a favorite,fly swatters, spatulas… I guess she’d found out that it hurt your hand when you punched someone. It’s amazing what a child will forgive, for a very small amount of love. Once we were adults, my mother treated us very differently. It seemed that once we were no longer dependent on her, we were easier to love. Later in life, when mine was a total mess, she could fix just about anything with one of her big bosomed hugs. Crazy, isn’t it? junk1 Rated
Suzanne, you took a subject we see all the time, unfortunately, and made it personal and real. I did not suffer as much as you. My mother’s weapon of choice were here words and an occasional and surprising pop on the mouth. She’d bust my lip and then deny she’d done it. Sort of a wierd world to grow up in.
You have certainly found a way to cope that helps others!
Oh my God! This is very upsetting and it felt like a slap to me too…
You wroteso clearly of yourexperience and without any trace of self-pity…don’t think I could do it.

My mother spanked us too much I think but much, much less than she had been…I think she was physically abused and I know she was verbally and/or emotionally abused…I am trying to understand her better now that she is gone, since January 12th, and I want to better integrate, in my own mind, all of who she was and WHY she was the way she was to us…
My mother suffered depression all of her life…I am sure early trauma and never knowing if she was going to be hit or hurt some way was the cause.

Sorry Susanne for all of this. There were times when people and to some degree society thought this treatment was acceptable. I hope this behavior will soon be a thing of the past.

You are a sweetheart. If your thoughtful mind and disposition blossomed out of hardship, you have lived to best a person without love or empathy in her heart. You have survived!

Moving and powerful. Hugs to you.
rated
A wonderful piece. And a difficult one. Thank you.
Susanne, I grew up in a country and within a vanishing culture where parents were supposed to hit their children when they–our parents–were angry. Never mind if the anger was at themselves, at their children, or at their neighbors. Call it crazy, but somehow we felt it was part of their job description as parents and that they were showing to the entire barrio that they were not spoiling us rotten. When we were small, my brothers and sisters were never spared by both our mother and father from the fist, the rattan switch, the bamboo stick or anything that was within reach—the ever handy belt, a slender piece of firewood, whatever. The funny—or should it be sad?—thing was, my siblings and I never harbored any hatred against them; nor did these shared blows and lashes draw us closer to each for supportive comfort. Perversely, it seemed at that time, we felt that whatever anger they directed at us was some coping mechanism in a tightly knit barrio community that had no use for a jazz guitarist (him) and a failed seamstress (her). They are both gone now and we, my four brothers and four sisters
Sorry, I hit the Post button before I could finish with my post.

…have gone to raise respective families of our own. And on our parent’s death anniversaries, all of us gather at the ancestral house and among the stories we tell our children during these reunions are their grandparents’ “wicked” ways. And they ask us: “How come none of you went crazy or rebellious or all screwed up?” And we tell them: “Because we all loved your grandma and grandpa.”

Crazy, isn’t it? And I’m sorry if this doesn’t make sense.

powerful and sad beyond words, portrayed beautifully

I know some of this though not to this extent. I am with you.

This makes me ache for you and for all the children who are brutalized in our country every day. KD Lang had it when she sang “the rights of the children have nowhere to stand.” Thanks for this post.
Dramatic free verse. Was your mom abused too? Abusers sometimes like to pass on the pain for a reason I will never fully comprehend. Peace.
Powerful and vivid. I hope it helps to write this stuff out – I know writing is therapeutic for me. My mother used words, not fists, but we found out near the end of her life that her mother did use physical abuse at least at times. It all made more sense. So it trickled down and now her children treat their own children lovingly. The trail ends, thank god.
Wonderful but sad. Rated. Take a look at the post “The Nuns Made Me Do It.”

It’s amazing people still grow up and can be happy. Good for you. It looks at though you found that love instead of a fist!

Ah, Susanne, you took my breath away with this one. Right there with you. Moved beyond words that that that little girl was able to turn into the woman that you are, who transforms, transcends, and remembers.
Thank you, each of you, for your kind remarks. I always wondered if I could write my own version of “My Papa’s Waltz” but it never came until last night when I couldn’t sleep.

I don’t think that anyone can ‘understand’ this, though there are folks here who have their own parallel experiences, such as junk1, Gayle, and Mitidor. I think our culture was accepting of such behavior when I was young. I have a story about why I know this in me, so I will save it for that.

Matt Brandstein, you most clearly stated the truth: “The prose of brutality serve as the most effective means to stand up to its onward march.” For those who have suffered at the hands or the words of their parents, what we have to say about it is exactly the tool we have that turns the tide in our own lives and for generations to come.

Yes, there was abuse of my mother and her brothers. My uncles told me about it when I was a young woman. My grandmother was orphaned in the flu epidemic of 1918. I believe she had a very hard life.

This is so painful and powerfully descriptive I could almost feel the blows. I cringed, I jumped, I wanted to run. My stomach hurts, my heart hurts for you and your sisters and brothers.

To have gone through this abomination and emerged with the ability to love and allow yourself to be loved is nothing short of a triumph of will and spirit and determination.

Now I understand a little better why you always seem to understand. I’m so sorry for your pain, but very, very grateful for your courage.

Thanks Sally. Writing saves a lot of people, be it good writing or not.
Susanne,

I did not realize you had this kind of history in your family. Thanks for sharing it with us.

I think we have all experienced some kind of abuse in our lives. I was abused as a child, too, although the physical abuse I suffered did not compare to what you have described here. For me, there was some degree of physical abuse, but what really hurt and caused problems for me that reached/reach far beyond the physical, was the mental/emotional abuse; the power of the words that were spoken to me so constantly about my shortcomings, and my apparent innate ability to “embarrass” my mom did far more harm than the physical abuse.

RATED

Yeah, a difficult and moving post. I had an abusive childhood.
Hit by both parents who were themselves abused. You stopped the
cycle.
AND NOW YOU ARE LOVED.
Susanne, it was physical abuse for you and emotional abuse for me…but it hurts no matter what. I really understand, respect you for the fine person you are.

I’ve got your back. Rated.

again, i wonder almost randomly (well, not randomly in this case cause i’ve been meaning to get over here for some time) onto a post and my breath is taken away from me by what i read.

i don’t know what to say susanne, except maybe that you’re an inspiring example of how it’s possible to be so much more than where we came from.

Wow! Powerful! I hope you’ve healed.
This is really sad.
Susanne,
Sending you hugs of love and healing from someone who can relate. Thanks for sharing with us…it’s a very brave thing to do.
Susanne, Thank you so much for this heart felt and honest post. It was beautifully written. Brought tears to my eyes. I send you lots of love and hugs from someone who can relate and who has been there. There is since in violence against another life.
You have been very brave to write this.
Thank you for sharing
Thank you again for reading and commenting and mostly, for caring that such things happen to children.
yow. painful to read. i think you hit it.
Susanne – I am so sorry for the pain and fear you must’ve experienced as a child… this is such a powerful piece. I can’t stop thinking about it and wishing the little Susanne could be protected from these blows. I hope you have found some peace in adulthood, although I know there are scars.
I am struck by how difficult this is for so many to read when for me it is merely a few of the facts of my childhood. It took quite a long time to get to the place where I could say these things in the same way that I say I am left handed and have golden hazel eyes, I am no longer blond the way I was when I was this same little girl. And if you saw a picture of me from this time you would know that I hid this secret, and that you could see in me then the same happiness in my being in spite of the misery that visited me from time to time.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Your piece (poetry) was very heart felt. I have been blogging my stuff so I can understand the injustices that many went through as children and no matter how old you get, you never forget. The only good thing my parents gave me was a lesson on what to avoid being like. Peace of mind to you and thanks.
Sarah, Just keep writing. It gets clearer. I promise.
People, all people, are capable of all kinds of horror, of inflicting all manner of suffering on each other. This in itself is difficult to accept, (though I feel we must), but to imagine people are capable of doing this to children and their own children is just something I would love to reject even though I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end of cruelty to my children and my parents. It’s something to question and deal with and ultimately learn from. I’m sorry for you because of what your mother did to you, but apparently your life has turned out *sweet, in spite of the misery* I hope. Sad, thoughtful poem.
“I don’t remember being hugged

or kissed, or having my hand held

gently, kindly, guidingly.”

Oh, sweetheart. There are no words to describe, but you did. You also are taking something so ugly and unimaginable and creating beauty from it.

Thank you for sharing something so deep and painful, yet so tragically common.

Thanks Mari. It is good to be understood and well received.
Unfortunately, this happens everyday, every week of every month in every year.

Anyone who’s worked with children knows the back stories. I can’t tell you how many times CPS, child protective services, has come to my classroom and all the classrooms I’ve been in thus far to take a child away.

Colleagues and friends have their own stories as well, and we talk about it as a way to get it out of our system.

And I suspect this is a way for you as well.

It horrifies me what children are subjected to. Maybe that’s why I’m always happy and smiling in the classroom.

It’s to make the children feel better and at the same time to mask the sadness of the true reality you’ve written about it.

Susanne: First I am very sorry that you had to endure that as a child. Unfortunately, far too many of us had similar childhoods.

All the things that you described my mother did to me. My stepdad loved me unconditionally and never touched me; and when he was home she would not touch me. The rest of the time it was totally without any rhyme or reason when or why she would go crazy over some small thing.

The difference was that my mother would then go into periods of remorse that manifested itself in smothering love and affection that created for me what I later learned was a classic love/hate syndrome.

As I grew older I continued to honor the idea that a child was never to lay a hand on a parent and was to take his/her punishment no matter what it was.

It all came to a head when I was a senior in high school getting ready to go to school and she came at me crazy and screaming and seething with rage and struck me with a wooden suit hanger in the side of my face. The hanger cracked and she drew back to hit me again. I reached out and grabbed her wrist and squeezed until she let go and told her that she would never hit me again. Ever.

I got in my car and went to school. When I got back all of my clothes were scattered all over the yard, my stereo and games and anything that had anything to do with me was thrown, mostly broken, into the yard.

I gathered it up and never went back. What a sad mess that was.

Reading about your pain brought all that pouring back out of recesses of my memory I almost never access.

God bless you, Susanne, for growing into the compassionate and strong person you are today.

Monte

Difficult to read, sad, and powerful.
Well written (though it would be worth writing even if it wasn’t.)

It’s amazing that you grew into the kind person you are today.

I had a problem dealing with how somebody who claimed to ‘love me’ could cause me so much pain. I had bruises but never a broken bone.

I was kept home from school a few times even…

It took me a long time to trust people. I still have flashbacks sometimes.

I wonder if I’ll ever know what it’s like to love someone completely. I have ‘trust issues’ I’ve been told.

It shouldn’t hurt to grow up. In other words, your parents shouldn’t be allowed to wail on you with abandon. My first home visit with my second serious girlfriend was marked by an explosive beating by my mother. I yelled at her to leave me… She didn’t give an inch. Later, she helped me move out after another violent confrontation.

I owe her a lot. As repayment, I married her… She got the short end of the deal by far, but most men marry up… Cheers to the wives! We thank you… 😉

Oh Susanne…this is so raw and painful even just reading it. I can’t understand why people do these things to their own children. I hope that you and your brothers and sisters are in a much better place these days, far away from that abusive fist.
Magnificent and sad. Rated.
Hello, Suzanne-
thank you for the poem; feel free to call my attention to your posts anytime.
Things left unsaid and worth exploring include who did love you; How did you become the good-you in the now? What ever happened to ol’ violent mom? I’m not saying this should be included in the poem; it is a gem unto itself. Only that there are rich fields for exploration.
I was born in the early 60’s, kid #10 of 11. Catholic. No birth control. The realities of family life as opposed to the idealism preached from the pulpit…well. My rich fields to write about.
I would gladly have consented to be aborted if my absence would have meant any less resentment and pain in Mom’s life. Yet, I don’t think it would have. She would have found another way to manufacture it.
She was a kind of prisoner. Of her biology, of her ideology. A child posing as an adult. And so many of my siblings have carried on the unconscious drama of rage and control, misuse of power over the very people they claim to love most.

I’m in your neighborhood now; if ever you attend Seattle unity church, look for me.

Heartbreaking, and beautiful at the same time.
Suzanne:

Here’s an excerpt from a recent post of mine, dealing with my mother’s dementia and the sudden death of my father: http://open.salon.com/content.php?cid=62794

“When I was in my early teens, I had one of a series of major arguments with my mother. I recall how she stopped hitting me and reached down to remove her shoe so she could hit me with that– I was getting to be too big for her to effectively use her bare hands. When she reached for her shoe, I grabbed her, dragged her to the ground and told her that the next time she hit me I would hit her back. From then on, whenever we argued she would run to my father and ask (or berate) him to do something about whatever it was I had said or done– she never struck me again.

I mention all this because after several days of dealing with her behavior while all of us were hurting, my mother got angry and slapped me. I didn’t hesitate– I slapped her back. Her dementia, my respect for others, the knowledge that my father lived with her for sixty years without hitting her (that I am aware of), my understanding her pain and feeling my own, none of that mattered to me; all I could think of was that, after more than forty years, I had kept my promise.”

I am so so so so sorry that this happened to you and your siblings. So sorry.
Your poetry speaks to me so clearly and painfully. I wish I could write about my childhood as powerfully as you.
Highly rated. At some point, I guess, the recognition of this forced you to a concerted action to end the cycle. So many never figure this out and I’m guessing your Mom is one of them.
I’m stunned into silence and screaming for your healing. Rating for the writing and BEGGING for everyone to read this. Including you, Joan and Kerry.
Cartouche, I am healed, clear & centered, so don’t worry. I don’t think Joan or Kerry are likely to read this. They have other interests that they are pursuing.
You mirror my soul….
From violent unloving background
A wealth of understanding finally….
And my totally broken heart is mended….
But it took the light of understanding…. shining it’s torch at me and bringing back the hope that underneath the cruelty …..
There was love, masked, but there…
I was, and am sorry for the pain this shadow cast over our existences…
{rated}
That was lovely nahatsu. Thank you.
Susanne, what a heartbreaking set of memories. I think you’re so brave to put this into words rather than squashing in the back of your mind – though that would be tempting and I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to go to this space every day and still function. If there is any peace that comes from sharing I hope it comes to you. I live on the other side of the world but your pain comes through loud and clear. I feel for you and hope you find some joy in your present and future.
I am a very happy girl with a haunting past. It is good to be me. I share this now because I can and because there are children out there having this experience now.

Thanks for coming by.

Susanne, this is a horrendous and sad thing that you have gone through but, I’m glad you had the support and love of your siblings.

Remind yourself of your goodness and strengths. You have survived and that is a victory. You are an amazing lady!

Susanne,

This is difficult to read. I wish we could rewind and I could loan you my mother. But perhaps you wouldn’t have turned out the remarkable woman that you are.

I wonder if there are a few advocacy organizations for battered children that you would like to bring to OS readers’ attention. I guess after experiencing something this horrible, I look for a way to do something about it.

I suspect that Dan the Man has had a huge role in your healing. Give him and the cats hugs from me.

Hugs and admiration,
Mary

hi, susanne, it sounds like where I grew up. Something like this can kill your soul. It killed my sister’s spirit. 50 years later she’s still wounded.

I read your writing and know that you’ve survived it–and more. Gone on to live a good and useful life.

Thank you John. One of my sisters is like yours and another is more grounded like me. This kind of childhood settles on each of us differently.
After working for 5-1/2 years in foster care and 3-1/2 years in private practice, I have no illusions about the torture which parents will inflict on their children. Many times clients will ask me if they will ever be “normal.” My response is that they will never be the people they would have been if they hadn’t been abused, but that with time and work the abuse will become “something that happened to me” vs the monster in the dark that keeps you trapped. It is clear that you reached this place in life, and for that I am happy for you, despite all that went before.

I still occasionally stumble. Last night I was watching a movie and a character looked so much like my 1st stepfather, that for the first time in years I had a flashback. But it was short, and when it was over, it was over, and I remain who I have worked so hard to become.

Merwoman,

Good for you! The same thing happens to me from time to time. The mind likes to take what is happening right now, no matter whether it is truth or fiction, and categorize it as if it is the same or equvalent to something that happened earlier in our memories. It’s mechanical and has nothing to do with the hard work it takes to clear up ones life and grapple with a nightmarish history. It’s interesting to me now because I can simply observe it rather than be taken by it to a dark place in my memory. The fact is, most memories are not entirely accurate anyway and some things we think we know are not even completely accurate and true.

Dear Susanne, this is one of the most important posts written…opens windows and doors of reflection and insight , and shared pain too, for so many readers…

I love how you said you are a “happy girl” … how many can say that? even with “good” childhood backgrounds??…happiness seems a frail element in American or the Western World life…yet you have it and I believe you when you tell us that you have it…to overcome the past is a life struggle for many, even for me at times, I am so impressed by you!
You did a BIG thing for many, many people by writing about this subject. BIG.

Thanks again for your comments and concern. I hope that what I have said does make a difference to people, that they can see themselves or think about how they treat one another with love and respect, and if they don’t, that they wll look for the source of their unhappiness.
Sorry I’m late to this Suzanne. I loved the language of your poem. It sent me back too a bunch of decades, sure, but mostly it just made me love you so intensely I could kiss and hug away every distant and lingering trace of your pain. You are beautiful, inside and out, and whether it’s my own pain and love I’m projecting or yours, who cares– it redeems us both, so what a celebration!

x nada

Very sweet Nada, thanks. Keep doing your spooky good love with your kids and dance happy on the earth!
My God you’re brave……I admire you so much.
Riveting piece of writing…..a mature step to bind the assailing hands of the oppressors.
Gary, I am glad that you were here to read it. Some eyes you just want on your work, and yours are some of those eyes my friend. Thanks for your kindness.
Susanne, thank you for sharing your story with us. I am all for joy too and I want you to know that yours shines through.
Root and Branch

My mother’s fidelity to her marriage bed
Was rooted deeper than any Penelope.
My father’s departure, he no homeward bound Odysseus,
Became the charybdic black hole where anger
Anchored her against the uncertainty of failed expectations.
Thus the bitter bark of abandonment roughed skin once caressed
And spiteful acid pooled where aroused blood flew.
Her graceful limbs turned twisted sneers of gnarled branches.

We, her children, thought or mother beautiful.

She wore every grey venomous leaf left to her
Like a wreath of glorious victory,
Their rattled whispers sighing:
Your father was a good man.

We played out our youth
In the shade of her love
As if nothing was wrong.

I understand too well. For me there was no touch that didn’t leave a mark. Not all of the marks were visible cuts and bruises. Sometimes they were worse. Beautiful and brave.
Thanks Zul. I do understand.
Thank you.

It’s funny, but it seems to me almost like these words have been put away and because you read them they are ‘out’ again.

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BEING ORDINARY: What’s the Point of Trying to Be So Special?

I keep wondering about that.  I have a fairly ordinary, normal life.  This is my most prized accomplishment.   I make dinner for my husband most nights.  Because I love him so much I cook from scratch.  That involves baking and fresh garden vegetables and cooking with those things I have canned from our garden.   I enjoy planning our garden during the winter and combing over gardening websites for ideas, amassing the seeds, bulbs, corms, peat pots and supplies I need to get a jump on the short growing season we have in the Pacific Northwest.

I am looking forward to seeing roses from here.

I am looking forward to seeing roses from here.

I like living well and my definition of that is fairly simple.  For us, living well means living in a fairly well-organized, clean home that delights the eye with both its beauty and its utility.  Home is a wonderful place to be for us.  The few times that I have been able to travel have been a great joy to me.  I want to travel more than I have.  I look forward to it.

I don’t much care for whiners, I appreciate folks who are solutions oriented and rather than complain, do what they can to improve on any given situation.  When I say that, I have to also say that many really HORRIBLE things happened to me in my life.  I don’t like to be called a victim.  I don’t like to be called exceptional either.  I don’t like to be called a survivor because what happened to me isn’t like being pinned under tons of rubble for ten days before a rescue crew pries the rubble apart well enough to extract someone who when they survive will return to life in a country where they live on $500 or less each year.

I don’t mean to deny or minimize the things that happened to me.  I suffered through my difficult childhood in Southern California.  The weather is pretty good there.  I still got to hike in the hills and go to the beach.  When you’re wearing a bathing suit at the beach, social class and poverty isn’t all that apparent to others.   It is hard to characterize such a childhood as something one survived.   When you live through hellishness sometimes it simply occurs as the way life is.  You don’t know at the time that other folks aren’t going through the same sadness, the same loss of innocence.  Certainly I didn’t know what it was to have a normal, ordinary life.

I was sexually molested, raped, beaten, blamed for the sexual activity by my relatives and the mental abuse was very difficult.  I didn’t have a lot of friends because we kept moving.  I was isolated in a variety of ways.  I spent nearly a year of my teens in juvenile hall or in a receiving home for kids who were waiting for foster care.  I went through five foster homes between ages fifteen and seventeen.  I ran off to Denver with a conscientious objector from Camp Pendleton and waited to turn eighteen so that I wouldn’t have to be bossed around by screwed up, careless adults anymore.  That decision was made after the guidance counselor rather importantly informed me that I was not living up to my potential.  It doesn’t matter if I was right about them.  It was my experience that the responsible adults in my life weren’t paying attention to what was in front of them and what was important to me was not on anyone’s radar.

I have a GED high school equivalency certificate.  I took the test about eight years after that trip to Denver.  Denver came after having changed schools 27 times before I dropped out of high school.  I still did well in every part of the GED test, except math, where the discontinuity of my education reaped its grim reward.  I got only 45% of the math questions right, but I was in the high 90th percentile on every other subject in the exam.  I was always curious and read a lot and I think that accounted for my scoring well otherwise.   I talked my way into University of Maryland as a special student with those scores and no SATs when I was 25 years old.

Symons Hall U of MD

I also have a doctoral degree in religious studies and a Juris doctor degree from a small law school in California in 1995.  I am still paying off educational loans.= (Note: paid off in 2012)  I earned all of these degrees and debts on my own.  No one in my family had the means or any interest in helping me go to college.  It was up to me to make of my life what I saw fit.  Maybe it was up to me a little sooner than that idea occurs to others; but it dawned on me at some time during college that we really are all on our own, and that is a good thing, to learn to make ourselves happy.

My education is one source of great happiness to me.  Education makes me feel rich.  No matter how much money I do or don’t have, the intellectual tools and experiences I have as a result of all of that work cannot be taken from me.  If I owe taxes, the government cannot take from me what I have learned.  They can put a lien on my house, but they can’t take the store of information and skills that I have collected.  Being able to solve problems and figure things out is one of my hard earned skill sets and I’m keeping it.

Wherever I go, having done what it took to educate myself both academically and socially I feel prepared.  No matter who I may meet, whatever the accomplishments of another, they didn’t do it coming from a background like mine and I feel like the challenges I faced and mastered gave me a confidence that puts me beyond commonly used measures.  Folks might be smarter than me, and often are, and they can be more accomplished in some way, but they are never worthy of more respect than I give or demand for myself.  At some point, I no longer felt any need to ‘measure up’ because there is no ‘up’ from where I stand.  And because of a few stellar people who crossed my path I learned the importance of kindness and generosity, in addition to the practice of respect, so I’m good.

And yet, all this post childhood educational work made me happy to be sort of ordinary.  Being ordinary is also an accomplishment when the life you were born to is one that asks you to suppress your gifts and become invisible.  Learning to write so that others could get on the same page with me, that was an accomplishment.  Perhaps I don’t write like a published literary genius, but being capable of being understood by a wide variety of people, that is an accomplishment that brings me tremendous joy.

I don’t think anything that I have done is particularly extraordinary, even though I have done lots of things no one would have expected.  I was not trying to be better than anyone else, I was, and continue to try to be better than myself, to expand my understanding and experience.  Sometimes I have done things faster than some of my peers, but it was because I had some goal in mind for myself.   I took more classes than I was required to in law school out of curiosity.  When I was about to graduate I realized I had taken about one extra class per semester.  I took more classes than anyone who graduated with me.  Even then I had a garden and I cooked for my family because I was in my forties when I did my graduate studies, and families need to know that you appreciate them.  Food is a wonderful source for the demonstration of love.   And sometimes, just lolling around without any purpose with someone you love is the best tonic on earth.

Every life has its challenges.  My life started out with more of them than most Americans.  Even so, most of the time I find that I forget everything I surmounted in the past and my life is merely about what I am going to make for dinner tonight and that feels like having a tremendously privileged life.  I am free of worry about having enough money or food.  I can think about things I never knew existed or had time to consider as a girl from a family who got food stamps.

I read Heidegger, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Sartre, W.E.B. DuBois, Shulamith Firestone and so much more.  None of which I could discuss with anyone in my family to this day.

I read poetry endlessly for a few years and fell in love with both Frank O’Hara and Sam Hamill.  I learned to meditate and to teach meditation and spiritual practices.  I learned to share the stillness I had found within.  If I had followed the expectations of my family I probably would have been a waitress for a long, long time.  And certainly, it helped me pay my tuition to be a good waitress who could remember a lot of disparate information.  But that would have been it:  I would have missed the opportunities of my life.  I would have struggled with poverty and would have missed all the things that I love the most:  All the ordinary pleasures, all the normal day to day things that come of being who I am.

I would have missed my ordinary life.  In the same way that the low expectations of my family would have held me back, I feel that so much striving to be special is an equally and tremendously crafty thief of our day to day lives.  For a long time I struggled to excel at things that other folks simply did with greater ease than I can.  Other people were intrinsically more interested in the law than I was.  I wasn’t fascinated.  Other people were more interested in being heroic than I was.   And I tried to find work that was centered on my greatest skills, but there really wasn’t anything that required that skill set but me.

And so I found work that took advantage of my best skills, not all of them, but enough that at the end of the day I had time to use those other parts of me to amuse myself and benefit my family.  And the stress of striving for some acknowledgement of my specialness began to die away and I was left here living in this wonderful home with this wonderful man who appreciates my intelligence and creativity and who could listen to every awful thing that happened to me without awe or false sentimentality so that I could have an ordinary life and put away the burden of being special.   It’s nearly impossible to relax when you’re busy trying to be or avoiding being special.

My husband, Dan McMullen, has been more transformative in my life than anyone else I know. The way that he stuck with me through thick and thin helped me understand myself in ways that nothing else could.

I’ve done all kinds of spiritual, psychological and ontological work and he has done some of it with me, including even being an excellent student in classes that I have taught as a minister myself.

There is no substitute for being loved from the hair on your head to the soles of your feet, inside and outside and even when there is stormy weather in the relationship. Dan has never, ever made me feel that I should doubt his dedication and love. That kind of love leaves me free to develop myself as fully as I am able.

Dan the Man

This song is for him…



Ray LaMontagne

SHELTER

I guess you don’t need it
I guess you don’t want me to repeat it
But everything I have to give I’ll give to you
It’s not like we planned it
You tried to stay, but you could not stand it
To see me shut down slow
As though it was an easy thing to do
Listen when
All of this around us’ll fall over
I tell you what we’re gonna do
You will shelter me my love
And I will shelter you
I will shelter you
I left you heartbroken, but not until those very words were spoken
Has anybody ever made such a fool out of you
It’s hard to believe it
Even as my eyes do see it
The very things that make you live are killing you
Listen when all of this around us’ll fall over
I tell you what we’re gonna do
You will shelter me my love
I will shelter you
Listen when
All of this around us’ll fall over
I tell you what we’re gonnado
You will shelter me my love
I will shelter you
If you shelter me too
I will shelter you
I will shelter you