A Photograph of me without me in it

A Photograph of me without me in it
A photograph of me without me in it

Sunday, August 24, 2014


This week, as I read Daniel J. Siegal's The Pocketguide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, (more interesting than it sounds), I learned about the way that trauma can impact a family's brains across generations, and I've learned that there is hope to escape the cycle. 

The theme of generational trauma weaves through time and space: it goes centuries back in the stories we hear. Just think of all the Greek myths where men fed slaughtered children to unsuspecting gods and men and then their children were punished. And there are lines in the Old Testament (or Torah, depending on your upbringing) where God says God will visit "the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate [God]" (Exodus 20:5). Closer to home and more recently, the American playwright Arthur Miller explores this theme again and again. 

Three weeks ago, I researched and drew my family's genogram, a family tree that includes diseases of the body and mind, addictions, and emotional relationships so that we can see patterns across generations. When I began the genogram, I wanted to trace the impact that the trauma my maternal grandmother experienced as a teenager from her generation to my own.

I have long known that my maternal grandmother's family was farm poor during the Depression and that Grandmother had to forego a college scholarship in order to care for her younger siblings after her mother died, when Grandmother was sixteen. I have known that Grandmother's dear papa sold the family cow to buy my grandmother a winter coat.  

In my research, I learned more of Grandmother Matthews' story: her mother fell over from a heart attack when she was tying her shoe(or, worse, leaning over the trash can) in the kitchen. Two days later, Grandmother's aunt--her father's sister--hanged herself in the family barn. Not long later, Grandmother's grandmother committed suicide, slitting her wrists in a rocking chair on another uncle's front porch (where her five year-old grandson discovered her.) 

Grandmother did not go to college on scholarship but instead stayed home to raise her younger siblings and to take care of her father, who was diabetic and had stopped taking care of himself when his wife died. He died five years to the day after his wife died, and Grandmother continued raising her younger siblings, including sending them to college. Both of them would die because of conditions related to their addictions to alcohol and tobacco. As Little Brother Matt says, "This sounds like a sad country song." 

In interviewing my father, I learned for the first time that my paternal grandmother's mother also died when this grandmother was a teen (well, almost: Grandmother was twelve.) I wondered, "Why was this the first time that I heard Grandmother Edwards' story--or at least why was this the first time the story resonated with me?"

I also wondered why one Grandmother experienced such trauma and the other, as far as I could tell, did not. As I thought about their common experiences in losing their mothers while they still lived at home, I also thought about the differences: Grandmother Matthews cared for her sick father and then he died, too, whereas Grandmother Edwards' father lived, and since this grandmother was the baby, her older sister Magnolia (soon to be nicknamed "Ben") raised her. Ben was a delight, one of those joyful souls you meet a few times in a lifetime. Furthermore, Grandmother Matthews had to take on the role of an adult in a family where the adults were losing it, whereas Grandmother Edwards maintained the role of the baby all her life. 

When I watched the film, Legacy of Unresolved Loss: A Family Systems Approach, one of Monica McGoldrick's early comments resonated with me: “It is when…connections are severed, whether through death, divorce, or estrangement, that a part of us also dies, and that deadness can seep into all of our relationships, affecting people long after the loss has occurred.” 

I have long noticed the emotional inheritance of my grandmother's trauma, and in Siegal's book I learned that structural changes to the brain as a result of epigenetic (a new word for me) trauma can also be passed through the generations, making resilience in the face of stress more difficult for later generations. 

As I continued reading, I also read the hopeful news that our brains continue changing throughout our lives and can heal. As Siegel writes, "Preliminary findings about the positive impact of mindfulness meditation…support the hopeful view of the power of the mind to alter even epigenetic regulation of gene expression….It is never too late to use the focus of attention to alter the brain's architecture."

When he discusses the seven (or maybe eight) aspects of our life that support neuroplasticity, he even provides the key elements to becoming healthy:

1) aerobic exercise
2) good sleep
3) good nutrition
4) relationships
5) novelty
6) the close paying of attention
7) reflection
8) humor (maybe)

Further, he writes, "Being kind to oneself is a crucial starting place for lasting change." This seems true to me after 27 years of observing teenagers in high school classrooms (and their stressed-out teachers), and I'm glad to have it confirmed by a researcher. The implications for schooling--and for our society's addiction to punishment-- may be obvious: teaching someone compassion begins with compassion, not with shame. 

This lesson was one of the great Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King's lessons. He said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction....
The chain reaction of evil --
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars --
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Strength To Love, 1963

When will we learn the hope and wisdom of our saints and learn to love ourselves and one another? Perhaps that will be when we teach the hope and wisdom of our saints. Perhaps that will be when as a culture we value kindness more than a new car, silence more than sound, and stillness more than speed. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Isabella's in college!

This week, my oldest niece Isabella, Sister Jen's oldest child, is moving in to Duke, where her maternal grandmother went to college and her maternal grandfather went to med school, for her freshman year!

When I was young, I hated all of those old people always commenting, "You grow like a weed" (To Sister Jen who also grew like a weed and was olive-skinned and tan, Grandmother Edwards would say, "You're as brown as a nut!" and Granddaddy Matthews would say, "She's got big feet.")

Because I tired of those comments, I've always tried not to comment on how fast my nieces and nephews are growing up, but I hope Isabella will forgive me this time. She's grown up so fast!

When Isabella was maybe two years old (Do kids talk then?), she saw a photo of a baby and pronounced, "That's Jack." (Jack's Isabella's first brother, 14 months younger than she is.) Sister Jen said, "No, that's you. You were a baby once, too."Little Isabella thought about that for a long, quiet moment and then whispered, "That's amazing." She's right. It is amazing, this move from baby to person. She's always been amazing, always in my heart.

Not long after, Isabella came to Grandmother Matthews' 80th birthday party. I spent a lot of time in a cute town picking out the perfect, expensive teddy bear. Isabella played with a hanger the whole weekend, and I haven't been much of a shopper for any of my nieces and nephews ever since.

When Isabella was maybe five years old, and her three younger brothers had all been born, she'd corner me or Ann at every family gathering and drill us with questions until somebody noticed and stopped the interrogation: "Why aren't there any boys in your house?"…"Why don't you wear rings?"…She was trying to understand a lesbian relationship before being gay hit pop culture. When Ann and I would see Isabella again, maybe six months later, she would pick up right where she left off with the questions. (We always answered them until she asked me, "Where do babies come from?" I told her, "That's a question for your mother.)

Last summer and fall, Isabella let me help her with her college essays, and I got to know her better through the explorations of what is important to her. One interesting conversation was about her involvement with debate, which she loves (in this way, you know that she's related to my father). She said that she loves to take the opposite side of any argument and win it. There are only two topics, she said, that she won't argue against: immigration and gay rights (in these ways, you know that she's related to me.)

The kids' nanny growing up was a young woman from Ecuador, and from her nanny (her "second mom"), Isabella learned to love someone from another culture and to respect the struggle of people who don't speak English and come to this country. Isabella says she learned this respect from her mom, who treated people who had immigrated from south of the US border respectfully: in fact, Isabella thought her nanny was just a friend of her moms who came over and helped out a lot. (Really, she was and is.) Because of Isabella's relationship, she is fluent in Spanish, believes passionately in compassion for people from different countries, and plans to major in something about international work.

One of the things I love about Isabella is that she's tough. She's no wilting violet. I always think of Isabella when I hear Natalie Merchant's song, "The Adventures of Isabel." (I call it "The Adventures of Isabella" because I think the song captures Isabella's spirit):

Isabel met an enormous bear
Isabel, Isabel, she didn't care
bear was hungry,bear was ravenous
bear's big mouth was cruel and cavernous
bear said, Isabel, glad to meet you
How do, Isabel, now I'll eat you
Isabel, Isabel, she didn't worry
Isabel didn't scream or scurry
Washed her hands straightened her hair up
Then Isabel ate the bear up

Like her mother and her grandmother, Isabella is smart and beautiful and takes no guff. I know that she will do well, which means that the people that she meets and the world she lives in will be better because she is here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dixie's whistling on the Left Coast

Last night, we had a North Carolina thunderstorm in Seattle. The day had been hot: in fact, the last few days were unusually hot, in the high 80s and 90s, so the earth was hard and dry. So was the air. (In North Carolina, of course, the air would have been heavy with moisture, but that didn't happen here.) After dark, the air was still and the stars darkened, and then a bright burst of white light popped in the sky. A few seconds later, the thunder cracked. And with the thunder, a burst of rain, a torrent, fell onto the dry earth. Two minutes later, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had started, and the air smelled like it does after rain has hit the dry earth: a smell that took me back to another hot spot, the Grand Canyon.

I don't know if anybody's still arguing that climate change is a leftist myth, maybe the same people who didn't believe that tobacco could be bad for you, and I don't know if this storm was just an anomaly or evidence of climate change, but after only 23 years on the Left Coast, it does seem like the climate here is changing: Dixie's whistling on the Left Coast.

How can we not notice what the world and our bodies are teaching us?  As the poet William Wordsworth mourned two centuries ago:

THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--

How can we be so out of tune? Or, as my buddy Billy Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "The time is out of joint."

But, maybe there's hope for this ailing earth, as Pablo Neruda writes in his poem "Keeping Quiet" in his book Prayers for the Earth

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.

Sometimes I feel desperately sad about the destruction that we humans have wrought here on Mother Earth, but lately I've been thinking about the nature of impermanence. I've been thinking about my own impermanence since brain tumors so that I've come to feel my life as impermanent, and now I'm thinking also of impermanence as the natural course of this earth.

After all, I learned long ago that this earth would not last forever: the sun one day will expand to engulf the earth and then both the earth and the sun will die. So even though the earth could certainly last longer if we were more mindful of our responsibilities to it, it, like we, would die eventually anyway.

Is that a way of saying that these wars and this destruction of our natural world don't matter? Not at all. Life is such a gift. For example, although I know that one day I will  die, I won't run in the street and die today. I want to live each day fully until my next transformation, whatever that is.

And what does that impermanence say about the nature of God? Are we and this earth some divine experiment looked upon without concern? I don't know, but I don't think so. It seems to me that "with all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world" (to cite Max Ehrmann). And it seems to me I know nothing of God but love. Which is another way of drawing the conclusion that the poet John Keats draws at the end of "Ode on a Grecian Urn":  "Beauty is truth; truth, beauty. That is all we know on earth and all we need to know."

For me in this moment, it's okay if I know nothing but this. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Feeling Snarky

As I left my home yesterday morning, I locked the front door and descended the stairs to my poetry box, then began making my way to my 94 year-old neighbor Annabella's home so that we could wait together for Ann to pick us up for our trip to the Y. It was a lovely morning, bright but not yet hot, and I took in the flowers and the trees as I leaned on my cane and made my way down the sidewalk. In this moment of breathing in the morning's loveliness, a woman who I'd guess was in her late sixties hollered at me from across the street: "Did you have surgery on your knee?" She yelled in a neighborly way as her little dog sniffed the parking strip.

Startled from the morning's loveliness, I yelled back, "No," and if were feeling kinder I might have left it at that, but instead I continued,"…in my brain." This neighborly woman froze, looking a little startled, and I noticed that she continued to watch me as I walked on. As Annabella and I waited for Ann, we chatted about whether we'd gotten enough sleep, and the woman with the little dog, now on our side of the street, approached us. "I'm sorry…" she said. I waved her off and asked about her little dog.

I should have been the one to apologize, but I wasn't in the mood. I have carried in me these last two weeks frustration with the group I was assigned to do a project with in class. I wrote about this group a couple of weeks ago, but in case you don't remember, the essence was that I couldn't find my voice or my place in this group, and I wondered why. My theory at the time was that perhaps, as part of the e-generation, my group members just couldn't understand me, and I resolved to be as helpful as I could but to follow their lead and see what I might learn about how the e-generation plans and executes projects.

As I've participated and observed over the last two weeks, I have been kurfuffled (I think that's a Dr. Seuss word) again and again by how little I understood of their process. I predicted that when we presented to the class I would be impressed by how well it went and I would need to do some more thinking to see if I could learn from them.

I predicted incorrectly. The presentation was abysmal and might have received a C, certainly no better, in the high school classes I taught. Now my theory is that my classmates' plan had to do with their e-generation habits as well as the particularities of the individuals in this group. I wonder if the pace at which this generation moves leaves little time and space for reflection and for quality work. The goal was to "get 'er done" rather than to learn or explore or create community.

But this is not true of the e-generation as a whole. In fact, the presentation after ours was quite good, and I noticed in the easy banter after the presentation that the group members seem to have developed genuine connections with one another.

Before class, a friend who somehow intuited my frustration shared part of a poem with me that helped me re-center. The excerpt is from Jan Richardson's "Blessing in the Chaos":

Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and demeans,
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.

The grace of the words and the sentiment steadied me and reminded me to return to the place in me that has compassion for others and also for myself. There is so much healing yet to do in my life: such grace that I have the time and space and support to do it.

    So much in me just wants to be heard. Like the poet Stephen Crane's man who says to the universe, I want to say, “Sir [ and ma'am], I exist!” but I don't want to hear back the universe's lack of interest. 
   I want to hear back that I matter. And you, dear readers, help me to see that this is so. That you for being here. Thank you for listening.