or “Learning to Speak”
I was way, way into adulthood. Yes, I was surely still distraught – my husband, Tom, had died of a heart attack just one year earlier at age 42 – but what’s puzzling is how typical this moment was for me. Here I see myself starkly, I feel my frozenness, I feel my own present puzzlement looking at that past moment. Something is wrong with this picture. How did I come to this?
I wanted to go back, even alone, to the field in the woods where Tom and I had gone together on the motorcycle, to the great field with the six-or-seven-deep circles of pine on the far side of this openness. The field was so big we’d hardly seen the trees at first. We’d parked the motorcycle, took off all our clothes as the day was hot and we were way off in the backwoods; we wandered toward the only interesting thing in the field, this far-off grove. Upon arriving there I walked all through it and finally stood in the middle to feel the energy. I remembered Carlos Castaneda’s writings about places of power, and particularly he’d said that a warrior must find their own specific Place of Power where their spirit will go after they die, where before leaving the earth they will do their warrior’s last dance. I decided that this would be my Place of Power when I die.
Tom was wandering around somewhere and came back saying it was time to go. We headed back to the motorcycle, put on our clothes, and drove off through the endless quiet woods of the Manistee National Forest to my family’s cottage on the little lake.
Now here I was two years later trying to pull together some new life. After twenty years together Tom had been taken from me to another world. I had come to the cottage alone. I wasn’t able to drive the motorcycle, but in the tool shed I found an old bike – no gears at all. I took one of the old Indian blankets that had been part of my family’s picnicking all through childhood, wrapped a can of bug spray in it and somehow put it on the back of the bike. I wasn’t sure how to find this field; all these sandy trails through the woods looked the same, but I headed off as best I could remember.
Riding the heavy old bike on trails of sand was hardly easier than walking, but I pushed forward slowly. Finally, to my surprise, I came to the field. As I got off the bike I realized I’d lost the Indian blanket. “It must have fallen off somewhere farther back,” I thought. I stood by the bike looking back down the road, trying to decide what to do. Head back down the difficult trail for an unknown distance? There was sentiment with the Indian blanket, besides wanting to sit on it in the circle of pines.
As I stood there, weary and unsure, a pickup truck came down the trail. Two men sitting in the front drove slowly by me, so close we could have shaken hands. Their window was open; they said nothing. And I, too, said nothing! I hoped they would stop and offer me what I’d lost: “Did you drop something on the trail?” they might say. But they did not. They looked at me but all was silent as they continued slowly on.
Frozen. I remember my mouth feeling sewn shut, forbidden to speak.
They were men, this was part of the situation.
They seemed men of power and I was a small woman of 43 who still felt like a girl-child.
They were strangers. I had never seen my parents talk comfortably with complete strangers. I did not feel permission to do that.
It was not that I felt the men were dangerous, it was not that at all, though they looked like men of the woods, surely hunters in the fall, surely ignoring regulations when they didn’t like them. Was it my mother inside me? “Hold everything that’s you inside, silent and unshown.” My earliest real memory as a child is of looking up and seeing her crying quietly, as if she were trying to hide this show of true feelings. “Take what Life and men give you; you cannot have what you want,” she had told me with her example of silence. The Depression had taught her this stoicism, as well as the general culture of her times that left all decisions to the husband.
What else? Was it something I’d been taught or was it just something missing in my experience? Why could I not ask for what I wanted?
The question brings up other memories. I’m maybe five or six, standing on a beautiful wooded hill in autumn that slopes steeply down to the Muskegon River. My dad has just said to Mom that his dad, Grandpa M, has some old wooden skis in his garage. Excitement rises up in me; I can see the skis in my mind’s eye. Wouldn’t it feel grand to go down this steep hill on skis? But how does one get up the hill again? How does one stop and not run into trees? Would they ever let me try Grandpa’s skis? Would it be dangerous? I wanted to try skiing, try sailing down this steep hill in the winter snow, but I stood there silent, small between the grown-ups, quiet as I always was, no bother to them. I never asked about the skis, or how does one do this skiing, and they never even knew I was interested. A desire unspoken, silenced at the gate – the closed mouth.
A few years later it’s Christmas and we’re at my maternal grandparents house for dinner. “Uncle Moe” (we couldn’t say “Melvin” when we were little) was still living at home as a young quiet bachelor. Upstairs we’d get to tiptoe briefly into his room and he showed me his ham radio, through which he could talk to people far away, even in other countries. I was excited by this! Wouldn’t that be fun to be able to do that? But did I ever ask him or anyone if I could learn it? No, of course not. No one ever knew that interest in my heart.
Do not ask. The family policy: We will give you all you need, all we can. We give and give abundantly, but please do not ask for something from your own heart. Somehow I had learned this..
Once the secret desire in my own heart matched something dad wanted too, and without asking I received a gift that matched my secret longing! I’m still surprised to remember this. One surreal day I was sitting in boring Spanish class when someone knocked on the classroom door. I was called down to the school office. On the way my best friend fell in step beside me as she, too, had been called out. The superintendent greeted us in his quiet stiff manner and invited us into a little room. As we entered I saw a circle of men around the table and recognized one, our friend Mr. V, the only Catholic on the school board. Yes, this was the school board. Then someone explained to us that they had been thinking it would be enriching for the school to send some students to other countries as exchange students and have foreign students come here. Would we like to go abroad as exchange students?
Oh my! Would I like to travel abroad as an exchange student?? Would I like to …
This had been in my heart for several years. I had never asked my father; I wouldnever ask him. I had three younger sisters; to spend such money on me would take too much from the family pot, I knew. Dad had already taught me this when I had sent for mail about a Catholic girls’ school in Miami that I longed to attend. He must have seen the mail because out of the blue one day he said “I pay taxes for public schools; I’m not sending you girls to private schools.” Don’t ask. Don’t ask.
But now the School Board had “chosen” me! And they had already talked with our parents and received an OK. Later I learned that they had picked five students out of our class of 44 and visited all their parents: any student could go whose parents would pay for it: the School Board was not giving any financial help at all. We were the only two whose parents agreed to pay for the trip.
So I spent a summer in Sweden, an experience that jerked me out of my small town life into a much larger view of the world. If I had asked for this experience, I’m sure the answer would have been “No,” but the honor my being “chosen” gave some kudos to my dad, so for once my heart’s desire matched what the world offered me.
In hindsight now, I’m thinking perhaps this was not good. This experience seemed to feed my passivity, this principle by which I was living that adults would give me what was good for me without my asking. The right to ask for what I want, the responsibility to ask – these have been missing in me for some reason.
There is the possibility that it all began as Freud, from his own neurosis, would have predicted, – with the mother. Dad told the story more than once about that long drive from Michigan to Georgia when he was in the Air Force. There I was an infant lying in the back, crying and crying to be fed. “Feed the kid – she’s hungry!” Dad would say. And Mom would answer, “I can’t! The book says she can only eat every so many hours!” The mother separated from her own good instincts by theories of control over nature. I cannot remember this experience but I can only imagine what a baby would eventually figure out when crying for all she’s worth gets no response. “Speaking out for what I want is not the way to get what I want. What isthe way?” She would search. “I can only watch these two big people and see what pleases them. They have what I need and it seems that dancing for them is the way to survive.” This, I surmise, would be what a baby figures without words or thoughts when crying out for what one needs gets nowhere.
Perhaps gratitude, ironically, has also been part of the problem. Our major income was Dad’s work doing tax accounting for individuals, so of course he worked like a dog from January through April 15th. Then in the summer he really played when he played. But seeing him work late at night, night after night, month after month, gave me pause if I wanted to ask for something that cost money. He was already putting out lots of money to give us as much happiness as he could. To ask for more felt like adding to his burdens.
But still, here I stood at age 43 wanting my Indian blanket back and unable to open my mouth and ask for it. Something is not healthy in this picture.
I have receivedmy life. For much of it I’ve felt like a tiny boat pushed around this way and that, sometimes in calm waters in shady coves of loving trees, often out alone feeling winds heartlessly whipping me around, the world wanting things from me, trying to form me into what others needed me to be. In all these desires of others pushing and pulling on me, I’ve still and always felt a compass inside that kept me peddling, swimming, in a crazy zigzag way, trying to pull myself back onto a course that I would recognize as ‘truly me’ where I could feel comfortable with myself.
Often the best I could do was to say “No” to what I would finally recognize as Not Me. In so many of my life’s experiences I would finally come to see that this was not IT, not what I was looking for, did not feel right and I needed to get out of something and continue searching elsewhere.
Perhaps finding “no’s” was like a sculptor with a large chunk of stone. They say the sculptor must find a form that’s there inside the rock by chipping away everything that’s not the form. I’ve learned to recognize what doesn’t feel like “It”, like “me.
I remember in college I’d decided to minor in speech and drama because I loved a particular prof and was growing a lot in oral interpretation and public speaking. I had to take an acting course but acting felt impossible for me. I could not let go of myself and pretend to be someone else. How could I let go of myself when I hadn’t yet found myself? My direction was that of a person desperately trying to hold onto something very fragile, small, tenuous but essential – still trying to stand firmly in “me.”
One of my strange zigs or zags was the two years I spent in the convent.
That adventure was the result of a “Father Knows Best” moment. I really, really wanted to go to the great University of Michigan for my college studies. Perhaps there’s never been anything I wanted more than this: to do serious studies in a place that adequately challenged me. When I did ask my dad about this precious wish in my deepest heart, he said “No” so quickly he never remembered it. “You’d get homesick like my sister did at Michigan State. You’d be just a little fish in a big sea,” he said. I had asked for what I most dearly wanted. Thus silenced, I began an intense religious search for some guidance: now, where to? How to find a future that felt like “me”, especially in a world that still expected girls to marry and spend their lives raising children? Eventually the convent seemed the only thing to try, so I could live a dedicated life without marrying.
I gave this strange way of life a try but this didn’t feel like “me” either. Among other frustrations, there was this: that all day long, day after day, I could never make a decision about anything. How could I know who I was without making choices and decisions? I longed for the freedom that every young adult longs for – to begin to try to make my own life – by choosing. No, after all, having someone tell me every small and large move to make did not feel like “It”.
Getting out of the convent was not easy for someone as unassertive as I, but some survival instinct kept me hunting till I found the way out. This experience – finding my way out – was a little step in learning to trust my own inner knowing of what was right for me.
But once I left the convent – discerned that this was not It – I still felt the pressures of what the world expected: marriage, then children. How did I know this? I remmeber my dad talking about two female remote cousins in mymother’s family who weren’t married. He always referred to them as “the old maids”, even though they were teachers and had traveled around the world. This was all it took; I picked up from this that marriage would be required of me. And back in those days children went with marriage for Catholics.
I fell into line and married and raised children, experiences with so much joy but still, there was still that part of me that was towing the line rather than expressing my true self. I did what other interesting work and study I could do with whatever energy and time was left. Finally now at age sixty two I feel myself relaxing a bit, smiling, feeling I’ve found a free enough place where I can be my simple self.
My simple self! That’s what I’ve been looking for all along! Not trying to live up to what others need or want from me. Imperfect, unglamorous, gentle, content with an ordinary little life. “It’s OK to make mistakes,” I write on my learning board. “It’s OK to choose differently than my parents and family.” “It’s OK to be unseen;” “It’s OK to be seen.” “It’s OK if not everyone likes me.” “It’s OK to want what I want.” Healing words. My body breathes as I say these and other words I’ve learned. My whole being relaxes. I have worked hard to find these words.
I feel my feet; I feel my butt against the chair. I’m in my body unafraid. I can talk with men now. How did this happen? I can usually say what I want and dialogue over it, listening to the response of the other. How did I finally get here? Wrangling with the two great guys I married – that certainly changed me! Even the two widowhoods brought me gifts of warmth and connectedness with others. Having babies, raising children – I didn’t wannna do it, but it put my feet on the ground and certainly kept me in my body. And raising children was fun! It’s been a real heart-warmer that connected me with every other parent on earth. And living in the big city with neighbors of every race and nationality has been delightful and enriching.
I’ve found good friends whom I respect and by whom I feel respected. I found a spiritual family that feels true for me, where I can speak, even haltingly, without censure and feel respected. As a Quaker in The Religious Society of Friends I learned to trust an Interior Guidance, that Something loving and wise leads me forward if I trust myself to listen and hear it. I did much interior work: spent years reading and thinking and talking with others, trying to figure out what I’m made of and how to be a human being. I learned to write my thoughts out truthfully. One small book I read on Assertiveness Training said I have a right to speak up or to ask for what I want, even when I can’t explain myself. That concept opened wide a door for me.
And then, – counseling others. For several years I counseled adults in the Literacy, G.E.D., and English as a Second Language programs of a community college. I was honored to have every imaginable variation of men and women share with me the insides of their hearts and guts and minds. I smile as I remember one of the very first problems presented to me: a Kurdish woman whose father had two wives and twenty children, now adults, who hated each other. She wanted me to tell her how to get her father to write a will so the two families wouldn’t kill each other when he died. To my amazement, I found a way: her father sounded eerily like my own father and I told her what I had learned from my own life… Then I counseled an old Mexican gambler who’d lost his wife and house to his addiction, and a Puerto Rican mother who was trying valiantly to free herself from heroin so she could keep her children. Two separate gay Mexican men came who had each tried to kill themselves. A fine young African doctor was busing tables while trying desperately to pass the licensing exam in English. An Iranian woman whose husband beat her every day for twentyone years as he drank became a big part of my life asI helped her through a dangerous divorce. A middle-aged black man who could not learn to write no matter how he tried was scared to death his boss would find out. Well-educated Muslim women came with their husbands speaking for them. Young black men now with prison records from drug associations asked me to help them find a path for their future. A Thai woman had had to drop out of school in third grade because she was a girl; she’d been taking classes to learn English for nine years but still could not pass the written nurse assistant test. Many medical doctors and college professors came, engineers, storeowners, plumbers, truck drivers, prostitutes, mothers on welfare, homeless people. I remember the Iraqi youth who came to me with his face half frozen: he’d been fired from his hospital job immediately after the September 11th tragedy because he was Iraqi. Two weeks later his face was normal again after he found another job. A young Mexican gangbanger (his words) was heartbroken when his girl took their baby and left. A mother came to me whose son had been murdered in El Salvador; black parents came whose teens were getting into drugs. There were marriage problems I was not trained to counsel, but without money, to whom else could these people go? Legal problems came to me that were hopeless for illegal people with no rights, and my heart felt sad that I could not help. Sitting at my desk I traveled breathless all over the world and into the corners and houses of every neighborhood. How could I be afraid of anyone now? I‘ve completely forgotten what the word “stranger” means.
Though my life has felt so unacceptable to me in many ways, my heart has been opened and connected by all this experience. It must be this connectedness that enables me, finally at sixtytwo, to speak and ask for what I want or need.
So now if I stood at the trail it would be easy to smile and ask the men, “Did you see my blanket on the trail?” They would smile and give me my Indian blanket, and with ease I would turn around and walk toward the field.
But here the ending of this story cannot change. Someone else took control of the end and it’s not in my power to change the way it actually happened.
In fact, I turned around and headed across the meadow to the pines. Something seemed different as I approached – something wasn’t right. Then I stood there at the edge of the grove, once more completely silenced. There had been a fire. Almost all the trees were charred and bare. I walked through row after row, dumbfounded. I walked to the middle, puzzling. I stood in the middle and gazed around. Then suddenly I knew. Tom had been here. Big Tom, man of power. Somewhere in those forty days after his return to spirit and before I saw the rainbow on the fortieth day, his spirit had come here and he had done his warrior’s last dance, burning the trees to tell me he’d been here and that he, too, had been a person of power.
I smile; how right. He was a great person and I was honored to know him well. He had laughed at those New Agey ideas, but he respected me and was open to new interpretations of life.
Now I would have to find a new Place of Power for myself. I turned around slowly and gave a respectful bow to all the trees, and then walked back to my bicycle – now today I would also have my Indian blanket – and I peddled slowly back alone to the little cottage on the little lake to live my contented little life, connected comfortably with other imperfect and marvelous people just like myself.