Living the Exotic Life

I’m on vacation! Taking a holiday from the ordinary world in which I live. The one that feels no more ordinary than Wonderland or Oz, while being nothing close to exotic. I am feeling far flung from that life right now, though: in a beautiful home on Whidbey Island keeping company with a sweet corgi named Gracie, who is missing her moms; watching the snowy mountains break through the clouds and the fog roll back in around them, as the cargo ships and eagles travel up and down Puget Sound. In some ways, it’s the ordinary solitude I was accustomed to before I moved in with my mother. Ordinary and exotic become all mixed up.

Barges, I would like to go with you, I would like to sail the ocean blue.
Barges, there’s a treasure in your hold, do you fight with pirates brave and bold?

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I have gone around and around on the topic of this first post of the new year; circling among several things to explore: my Word for 2015, my New Year’s tarot spread (which I haven’t done yet), a sort-of-promised follow-up from last week’s post about intentions, and an unexpected sadness. And then I changed my word, and, voilà, they became one. Well, except for the as-yet undone tarot spread; but I am confident that will fall into place. I think that is what tarot is: showing us what we already know.

Unexpected sadness: Last Saturday, I received word that a friend from a lifetime-before-everything-changed, had a massive heart attack. He is just two months older than I and is fighting for his life. How quickly a life taken for granted can change. Except he was no longer taking anything for granted, he was recently diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing treatment. But no one expected this.

In that other lifetime—when my children and his, and those of three other couples were young—we all met together frequently to share our lives and our experience of family. We were family. That was before four of the five couples divorced, while we were still taking what we thought would be, for granted. The truth is, we can’t ever know what will be. This week, some of the members of each of the other four families, with the children on the periphery (it was a group important in their young lives, too), have rallied around our friend from our homes across the country. It feels good to know that bond is still with us as we circle the virtual wagons, and to acknowledge what those friendships meant and continue to mean in our far-flung lives.

People come into our lives for a while, but their impact remains with us always.

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Promised (sort of) follow-up: Last week, I mentioned the humorous, but oh-so-true, “dementia translation” cards I found in my stocking on Christmas. “What  I said: You should have used a deeper pan. What I meant to say: You made a pie? How wonderful. Thank you!” My mother, who was never much into compliments, at least for her children, can seldom ever come around to one now. It’s a reminder that as we age, many of us become more of who we have always been. As brain function diminishes, the elderly become more dependent on less conscious kinds of memory. If we are accustomed to treating every moment for our children as a “you can do better, teachable opportunity,” we will forget how to say “thank you” for what did happen and to let go of what isn’t quite up to our standards—whether the child is 16 or 62. And we pass the tendency to use critical words on to others if we aren’t careful. I have become afraid that I will become less like me and more like her as I continue to be exposed to her attitude.

As I approach the end of my third year living with my mother, I find myself thinking if I put on the simple armor of truth, I can deflect her defensive and critical responses. But the opposite is happening: I am absorbing her disappointment, her irritation, becoming defensive myself, and sending the maddening words back her way instead.

It might help, as the cards suggest, to translate her words in my head into what I would have liked her to say: Thank you for dinner rather than these vegetables taste old. But what if I let her know out loud that I know what she meant to say (even if she didn’t mean to really), rather than button it up and swallow hard? I know what you meant to say was ‘thank you for dinner,’ and you are very welcome. What if I refuse to engage in—or react to—conversation based on her diminished taste buds and an unfaithful memory as to what something tasted like last time? What if I just stop trying to reason, bypass what she says, and move on to what I needed to hear? When I locate for her something that was lost, rather than react to complaints that it wasn’t where she left it ten years ago that feels like yesterday to her and therefore someone moved it recently, what if I tell her it’s okay that she didn’t remember, that I’m glad I found it for her? Can I do it without being sarcastic or snappish or impatient, which I am prone to? It’s a thin line. Can I do it with no expectation of change in her, but just change within me? Think Alice. Think Dorothy.

Think of these years as a journey to an alternate universe,
one from which I will someday return to the “ordinary” world. What do I want to have learned?

So there are two of the four points on my circle I have been thinking about this first week of the new year. Stay tuned for my tarot spread and my word for 2015. They are still swirling.

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14 thoughts on “Living the Exotic Life

  1. Well me too. How to respond to this woman who is my mom, but isn’t? Which self to honor – the one that nurtured me and may have thought these things but would never have said them out loud before dementia, and therefore never needed any redirection – or this one, who questions now my goodness as a person through her disrespectful and sarcastic tone and words – and definitely needs redirection? Do I ignore the one in front of me out of respect to the one before? The pain of being this woman’s baby – once adored and now unworthy – is awful. She was right once (adored); can she be right now (unworthy)?
    We know the continuum exists within us too (dark to light), and that our moms’ brain damage – and general grumpiness about the situation in which they now find themselves – means darkness finds its way out more often than naught. What does that mean about us? That after all this personal WORK to BE LIGHT, we won’t BE THAT?? That it can all be burnt out with a few snapped off blood vessels?
    What are we – really? Who are we – really?
    I suppose we are the best and worst of ourselves at all times – only you and I still have the ability to decide which part to show. When our moms are critical and mean, we can try to offer back light, knowing that one day brain cell death could make it much harder for us to do that too. The world needs more light, so let’s be that while we can. You are so right to protect your beautiful glow by immersing yourself in it as much as possible (and taking those gorgeous photos of sky and water, reflecting themselves). But I don’t think it means anything about us – how good we are now or how good we will be – if we snap, retort, ignore, model, or hit the reset button in response to our moms. We’re just doing the best we can.
    Love and blessings to you!

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    • Ah, Katherine. You’ve been dealing with this for a long time. I don’t know how you do it. I can say, without a doubt, that you are worthy.

      I guess what it comes down to, when put this way, is we are only who we are right now. I know I am both a better person and a lesser person than I have been at various times in the past. When I was a lesser person, I could have chosen to be different. Our mothers can’t choose. But oh, how we want them to. We’re angry that don’t make other choices. I’m angry that my mother can’t see. How stupid is that? But there it is.

      My mother knows enough to want everything to be the way it used to be. Including for her favorite sweater not to be worn out and for Jell-o chocolate pudding to taste like it did in her memory. She doesn’t understand why it can’t be so. I feel like she blames me that it isn’t, or that I can’t fix it. That is partly projection on my part, because I want to be able to fix it, if only so she will let it go. But then there would just be something else. It’s endless.

      We will try to shine the light for our mothers. We will forgive ourselves when we go dark. We will forgive them when they pull the curtains against it. Because that’s all we can do. We can’t rebuild the flashlight. And if or when we go permanently dark, our daughters will shine the light. Maybe that’s what and who we are: successively the receivers of the light, the bearers of the light, the passers of the light to others, and finally the receivers again.

      Blessings upon you. G

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  2. Because of economic rather than health situations I have become more viscerally and starkly aware of how fragile is the way we live at a given point in time, how thin the crust upon which we stand. Upon which everyone stands no matter whom, no matter circumstance or station in life. The Herculean task is to actively wrestle the future world we wish out of the bricks and mortar of the present that has been created by our past. A past made of our gifts and our brokeness. To pull off the juggling feat of getting it that we only really live in each moment of the present, because there is nothing else available to us – and yet that we must use those moments to create desired future moments, becaues there is nothing else available to us. And yet sometimes there is a third moment to juggle, the moment of self-forgiveness; letting our “wish it or I weren’t so” moments be and then leaving them to evaporate into mistory.

    Of course I don’t see your struggles in the here and now with your mom, your daily existence. What I do see in this arc of three years is that you are wrestling that future out of your present, that you are Hercules. This week is a perfect example of something that didn’t exist before and now is, because of you and what you’ve done. Your month’s writing. All your writing. These questions. The very acceptance and carrying out of the task of care-giving. The re-claiming of the closeness, or the memory of closeness, that you share with these couples. The circle of people who surround you in the aether, distant but solid as rock. These are all things you are creating by building them today out of yesterday – and they in turn create yellow bricks which become roads which lead to whatever colored city or Land or Adventure that awaits just up around that bend.

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    • Thank you for your thoughts, dear friend. When you popped up, I was sitting with my tarot deck, and the card in the first position (what do I leave behind)—which is the card from last year’s last position (the key theme)—is the Seeker. Why, I asked, would I ever want to leave behind the Seeker? Well, because it’s the beginning, and it’s time to move on into living the moments that are. I’m no longer at the beginning. The yellow bricks have been laid and it’s time to explore the city it has led to. It’s time to stop staring at the monkeys, or dreading the monkeys, and start dealing with them–which may mean learning to live in harmony with them. At least that is my initial take. Stay tuned.

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  3. Think of these years as a journey to an alternate universe,
    one from which I will someday return to the “ordinary” world. What do I want to have learned?
    Thank you once again…. So many things ‘spoke’ to me in your words today. My problem is that I have become the ‘snappish’ one while my mother remains sweet….and continues to disengage from this life. The anniversary of the death of my dad, her husband for almost 73 years, is also approaching… Perhaps I’ll have thought of my word for the year by then…

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    • Forgive yourself, my friend. You are traveling a rocky road without a map or a reliable vehicle. One boot has fallen off the mountain. Toss the other one down with it and use duct tape. (Watch or read Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, if you haven’t.) We both have to learn to let our mothers be someone other than the people we knew, or that we want them to be. A friend told me the only way she survives is to pretend her parents are strangers. It’s not easy. Hang in there, you are not alone.

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  4. Oh, wow! This was wonderful. I Love your question about the lesson you’re supposed to be learning. I think you’ve hit on the solution: to create the world the way you would like it to be… Just as if you lived in that world instead of the reality of your own that is sapping your kindness. Make it an Alice in Wonderland game!

    Life is short, and life is precious – as your friend’s medical condition emphasizes. My heart is with you.

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