Like a junkie with a 14-gauge needle, my mother used books to blot out reality. Curled up in her chair, immersed in a novel, she ceased to be aware of anyone or anything around her. When she put her book down, exposed herself to the rage and tension that contaminated our house, my mother became a shark, a creature that required constant activity in order to breath. She moved frantically between bagging Avon orders to playing tennis to attending ceramic classes to sewing curtains. Slow down for an instant, she instinctively knew, and she’d be forced to face her fears. With two kids and no career, she was dependent on a man unstable enough to break out the shotgun and kill us in our sleep.
To caulk the cracks that allowed troubled thoughts to seep in, anxiety—a manic, darty-eyed cheerfulness— took over where frantic left off.
And then there was my father. Beneath the surface of that thin-lipped Norwegian swirled eddies of self-loathing, rage, and intense loneliness—emotions that made it impossible for him to love anyone, most of all himself. Most nights he stewed in the basement workroom he constructed, scrubbing away on that red-lacquered violin, sucking on a bottle of Jim Beam, while my brother and me sat at the Formica table above, dreading the storm that invariably followed the sea shanties and Irish funeral marches unleashed by his horsehair bow.
An undiagnosed bipolar, he vacillated madly. One minute the violent outbursts, the words that connected like two-by-fours, the next, the calm and the accompanying remorse.
He was the perennial Outsider. A farm boy from North Dakota in gentrified New England. People—the stuffed-shirt neighbors, his weaselly co-workers, his ungrateful wife and children— either looked down their nose at him or were clearly out to screw him. Intimacy breeds contempt, he’d say whenever he blackballed another acquaintance.
Like wavy hair and a button nose, I inherited Mom’s dread and her coping mechanisms—obliviousness, the tendency to ignore blatantly unpleasant facts, and a buzzing disquietude that just won’t go away. From Dad, I received guilt, a distrust of others, and an intensity of personality that could knock a buzzard off a shit wagon.
They both taught me that suffering is meant to be suppressed, not addressed, which only separates a person from the self.
Yet, if you can’t connect to yourself, you can’t connect to anyone else either. This point was driven home as I read Lit by Mary Karr. In Karr I found a kindred spirit, a woman with a self-professed crappy attitude, a woman who attempted to fill the existential hole—the one my mother attempted to fill with books and activities, my father, with booze— with things that just didn’t work.
Looking back, I can see how Warren’s very essence looked like a corrective to who I was and didn’t want to be, which is unfair to him…Still, it must be said that someone who doesn’t like herself very much (i.e., me: age 25), someone who views a man as an antidote to her very being, will find-over time-that antidote becomes an irritant.
Vaguely aware of the Gulf within me, I too had sought out fillers. Food, grand ideas, but mostly a man who could fix me. Coveting his sense of inner peace, which was rooted in the divine, I married a practicing Muslim. There was nothing to worry about; things would be all right, because Man had no say in the matter, it was all up to God. Why feel guilty? Just do the right thing. If you don’t know what that is, the Book will explain. Of course I didn’t want to pray, or fast at Ramadan. In this way, too, I’d taken after Dad. Who thought that organized religion was for brainless sheep.
Drowning in booze, her marriage falling apart, Karr found herself one day at an AA meeting. It was there that she recognized what was missing in her life.
I notice in the professor’s baggy face his red-rimed eyes, and the care in the marine’s gaze starts to plug me in to something invisible that rivers among these strangers. It’s like running from my cardiac area, I’ve been dragging a long extension cord unplugged from all compassion, and it’s suddenly found a socket.
Compassion is a byproduct of opening oneself up. For people like us, and I see how Karr is me, there are several obstacles to overcome. First, we are judgmental because we’re so afraid of being judged. And there’s that tendency to slap on a brassy attitude just to hide how we really feel. Dismantled by small kindnesses, we figure there’s gotta be some catch. So to reach out to other people, we have to trust we won’t be chopped to bits.
Several months after finding AA, Karr took further steps to redeem herself.
…I list stuff I feel most crappy about—every single grudge and humiliation—a private exercise we all talk about over a month or so…and it floors me to see laid out how fear has governed pretty much my every moronic choice. I’ve never regarded myself as a fearful individual. I’ve hitchhiked in Mexico and blustered drunk into biker bars all mouth. Those acts now strike me as more pitiful than brave—the sad bravado of a girl with little to lose.
And doing what I’ve always longed to do— and this is partly why I write about the stuff I do—Karr put the anger and guilt to bed by sharing her 80-page grudge list with a perfect stranger.
I wind up facing a guy in a monk’s robe, a giant crucifix hanging from his belt like a scalp…At the end, jazzed to the gills on many plastic bottles of Coke, I sit drained over the overflowing ashtray, and Brother Francis blinks behind his smeary horn-rims, saying, Leave all that stuff here with me. God wants you to put this stuff down now. Go wear the world like a loose garment. And be of good cheer. If you let God in, He’ll take this shame from you.
This is the path Lit has sent me on. All those tendencies that I like to blame on my parents? All the stuffed feelings and distracted activity, all the defensiveness, fear, and guilt? At 47 years of age, a free-willed adult, what must I have, do, or be in order to let them all go? How can I finally hand my crap over and be absolved?
Therapy rescued me in my twenties by taking me inward, leaching off pockets of poison in my head left over from the past. But the spiritual lens—even just the nightly gratitude list and going over each day’s actions—is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.
Despite the allure of the confessional booth, despite Karr’s glowing recommendation–and, my God, she makes it sound like a long, cool drink– I will likely never become a Catholic. Nor will I go Muslim, like my former husband. All this knowing what connection to God did for him. I’ve tried religion on. It’s simply not the way I’m hardwired.
But, I get one thing, driven home by reading Lit. We all need to plug into something bigger.
We all need to feel like there’s something–something out there–that will absorb our burdens.
I do think the secret lies in attending to the Spirit. For me, it is about gratitude. About focusing on the many gifts—my husband, my kids, my healthy body, the time and space to write, I could write an 80-page list—not the stuff I need to fix.
And it’s about cutting people some slack, so I can relax about myself. And forgiving those who trespass against me, so I can forgive myself. It’s about stopping long enough to simply notice. To pull my head out of a book long enough to look about. But, most of all, it’s about busting out of my bad self. Reaching out. And allowing in. People, kindness, and new experiences.
Because feeling connected lets you breathe easier about yourself.
This, today, from the Dalai Lama:
To the extent that our experience of suffering reminds us of what everyone else also endures, it serves as a powerful inspiration to practice compassion and avoid causing others pain. And to the extent that suffering awakens our empathy and causes us to connect with others, it serves as the basis of compassion and love.