Write for Advice
Now I feel like my dad. My dad grew up in a time way before mine, as dads tend to do. He would make allusions and we kids wouldn’t get them. “What? Who was Gracie Allen?”
“Why,” my father would say, “she was George Burns’ partner!” Good old Burns and Allen. These days you can’t really know who knows what. A noted novelist of my aquaintance posted on Facebook the other day that her son, who is in his twenties, didn’t know who Robert Redford was. So, my friends, especially my friends who are in my generation, the generation that hoped it would die before it got old, the generation that didn’t trust anyone under 30, well, now people under 40 look like children to us and we don’t trust anyone, period full stop.
Even the phrase full stop: Telegraph terminology: Will its origins soon be hopelessly obscure? What about the phrase “off the hook”: will its origins in the physical Western Electric telephone one day be lost? Telephones haven’t had hooks for a while, though the cradle of a desk telephone came to be called the hook informally, as in, “hang up.” We are placed on hold but we could just as easily be placed on standby if it weren’t for the physical origins of the phone. My, how I miss the warm analog phone.
Anyway, this came up because when I use the headline, “I went home again,” I’m hoping that you’ll pick up the allusion to Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which my dad was always quoting from, and understand that this column is about the sad and complicated business of revisiting the deeply emotional scene of the family.
“Who is Robert Redford again?”
“Oh, dear, he’s some old actor.”
Hey. One other thing. So I went to the Poets and Writers Live event at San Francisco’s Brava Theater on Saturday Jan. 10, 2015*** and had lots of emotional responses and I posted a couple of pieces in response to the event, mainly around the notion that when writers gather there ought to always be some formal acknowledgement of events in the world, whether they affect us materially or not, because we are in a spiritual union with writers everywhere. Solidarity and all that.
Anyway, here’s today’s column, after which I need to put the newsletter together — which is trying to be a weekly thing. Once a week. You can handle that, right?
***Lately I use dates in body text now because the physical containers of text are unreliable and unpredictable; unlike newspapers that would have dates on every page … WordPress has date stamps, yes, but text can be extracted from its containers and then it’s just out there floating, unattributed, dateless, byline-less! I see journalistic posts whose dates are not attached and it drives me crazy! Because writing is history! And if dates are lost then … anyway, right, I’m writing this on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, and I’ve paid the mortgage, and property tax isn’t due again until April.
About 3 years ago, my husband, our toddler daughter, and I left San Francisco (I’d been out there 15 years) and moved back to the small Louisiana city where I grew up. This was all my idea. Much to my surprise, I had grown profoundly homesick after our daughter was born (I had sworn I’d never go back – the standard cliché, right?).
Well, my husband was incredibly flexible and accommodating, and circumstances have worked out. We were able to make our oddball techie careers work in Louisiana (amazing!) and now we are close to my parents, my brother and his family, and my lifelong best friend. We’re also able to live more comfortably and peacefully since the cost of living here is so much less than in SF.
Now to the difficult bit. There is an old relationship here, or actually a web of relationships, that nags at me. I know, I know. I can’t be the jerk who leaves home for 15 years (well, if you count college, it was actually closer to 20) and then returns like the prodigal daughter, and expects everyone to throw confetti and for everything to be “normal.” But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?
So at the heart of this is my high school ex-boyfriend. This was a very serious first love relationship for both of us. We learned all our early lessons from each other – we were both lovely and heartbreakingly awful to each other – and didn’t really get out of each others’ business until college ended and I moved to California. After that, we were what I’d call “Christmas Card Friends” – you know? We wished each other well, and had forgiven each other everything, and would be in touch from time to time with big news, but that was about it – and this all took place from a safe long distance. Kind of typical adult management of a special, much-loved person from the past.
Well … ok, so now my past tends to walk into my mother’s house from time to time, when I’m there visiting with my children! He lives on my parents’ block now (Why did he have to buy a house so close to my old home?! And why are my parents closer to him now than they were when we dated?), he and his family are very close friends with my brother’s family (Why did he and my brother have to become friends?! Again, they weren’t when we dated.) – and I see them at my niece’s and nephew’s birthday parties, etc. Not to mention random run-ins at the grocery store.
We are both very polite, friendly adults about all this. We make pleasant conversation and admire each others’ children and go on our ways. I know we both wish each other nothing but the best.
Why then, does it STING, and bother me for days when he randomly shows up at my mother’s house when I am visiting?
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I know that I am over him. I’m not carrying a torch, and I can completely understand why I ended up with my husband instead of him, and why he ended up with his wife instead of me. No harm, no foul. Good choices by nice people all around.
I think it’s his closeness to my family that bothers me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel angry at him for not staying “on his side of the fence,” and also angry at my parents and brother for being so close to him, for allowing him access to what feels like it should be my private, intimate space with them. At times, it even feels like I am watching my old life through a pane of glass – and he is still in it, and I should be in it, except there is another woman (his wife) playing my part. And here I am on the other side, shut out of the cozy circle.
It’s SUPER WEIRD. The sullen, teenager part of me that still exists wants to throw a shoe at him and say, “You, go away! Get out of my family! I didn’t choose you! You are no longer invited in!” But then I have this lingering, weird feeling that my family chose him instead of me.
This raises the question of my relationships with my family members. Perhaps I am scapegoating my ex for emotional difficulty with them? I’ve thought about that, too.
Well, with my parents, it just isn’t the case. I’ve got good, humanly flawed, but good relationships with both my mother and father. It took some time to re-establish these relationships as “close distance” once we moved back, but after some initial awkwardness as we learned how to relate again while living nearby, everything feels solid and real now. My mother, also, will admit from time-to-time that it’s “odd” to have my ex in such close proximity, but then she’ll say what is she supposed to do about it? She can’t ask him to move. So she just carries on with a smile on her face and ignores it. Dad doesn’t really talk about these sorts of things. Old school Dad.
My brother, on the other hand…my brother has given me the cold shoulder ever since I moved back, to an extent that’s palpable to everyone, and surprising and hurtful. We have a complex history, but were close as children. I left home when he was still in early high school. We’ve never been able to reconnect. He’s also a war veteran now and has experiences I’ll never understand, and that I tacitly know I should not ask about. I wish he’d let me love him anyway. I keep trying to take the high road, and invite him and his family to things, and he just quietly doesn’t show up most of the time, without ever making a scene or explaining why. He freezes me out, and hangs out with my ex-boyfriend instead. Literally. If I have an Easter egg hunt, he takes his kids (my children’s cousins) to my ex-boyfriend’s egg hunt instead. This has happened twice. Then again, they were probably going to egg hunts over there before I moved back, so…how can I blame him? And yet…if the shoe were on the other foot…I’d at least drop by.
I know my brother didn’t develop this relationship to spite me, and I try to keep breathing and just sit with it. But gosh it hurts.
I guess my question is: How to BE with all of this and not feel hurt-y and distracted like a teenager? I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.
Gone Home Again
Dear Gone Home Again,
You have returned to the scene of unresolved emotional attachments. Those attachments are still quite strong. They are not as strong as they were when you left but they are still strong and they are still unresolved. Leaving didn’t resolve them.
You would like them to be resolved but it’s a better bet to learn to accept them, navigate around them. Why?
Because that’s something you can do!
You can’t change the behavior of other people. You say, “I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.”
Sure. Me too. But all we can do is live with people as they are. I still wish my parents would get together after the divorce but they’re both dead now. Even when they were alive: Fat chance.
But we wish, fervently and without ceasing, don’t we? We wish like children with birthdays coming. We wish like crazy. We pray. We hope. We think maybe … We don’t even notice when we’re doing it. When you see your ex-boyfriend and it takes you a while to figure out why it upset you, it’s happening before you even notice it: You’re wishing things were different. You’re thinking about the past and how it might have been or how it’s supposed to be now but the crystalline amazingness of the present absolutely present totally right this instant now has escaped you. The beauty of the air, your children, your own hands, the doorway where you stand being suddenly irritated that he’s visiting your mom, the amazing history you and he had together, the tenderness, the blooming of love, the learning adult lessons, the passion, the enduring regard: All that escapes you and you’re just irritated because he’s in your family space and you think it’s your family space and not his.
Just pay attention to that. Notice it. Notice it and then turn to how you can be of service in the present moment. How can you bring some joy into the present moment?
Let the child wish. But be aware that you are the adult and you know that these things are not going to happen. When you catch yourself wishing things were different, try asking, How can I bring joy to this situation? How can I contribute?
The payoff is not in everybody thanking you and saying what a great sister/daughter/wife/mom you are. The payoff is private. It’s your own sense of well-being. It’s the relief of not thinking about that annoying ex-boyfriend.
Give. Offer of yourself. This will distract the hungry child within. It will redirect your emotional sense of purpose. It may also have a positive effect on those around you but they won’t necessarily tell you.
It will be healing, though. After another year or so, you may notice that things seem more normal. It won’t be other people changing. It will be you. You will have created a kind of normal for yourself.
There’s more to say. I don’t seem to be able to stop today:
You say you swore you’d never go back. Why? What was it about your small Louisiana city that made you swear you’d never go back? Are those attributes still there? What were you running from? Did you feel too big for the town? Hemmed in? Do you still feel that way? Was it partly a pride thing, i.e. I’m the one who made it out of that stinking town and if I go back I’m admitting defeat?
Give it some thought. For, while you can’t make these emotions go away, you can examine them. For instance: What is the competition about? Is it a competition for place in the family? Was competitiveness a feature of your relationship when you were together? What were you competing for? Did you, perhaps, imagine a whole future life together with him, and now that future life, that totally imagined thing, has come into conflict with the real thing? In this imagined future, were you his wife?
Consciously, rationally, you of course know that you are not his wife. But see if you can dig a little deeper; maybe a part of you still clings to that fantasy. Get your knife under this fantasy that is stuck to the floor and pry it up. Pry it up and fling it off. It’s a bit of stuck programming. It’s something that never happened. It never happened so you never lost it. It was never real to lose. We do that with the future, don’t we? We imagine things in such detail that when we confront their absence we feel loss, even though it never happened
Also, let’s be clear: You’re the one who left.
When somebody leaves, other people are hurt. They miss you and they wish you were still around. After a while they make other arrangements. They get on with life. If there were things they used to do with you, they do them with other people. They set up routines. And they may have to more or less consciously let go of you, because it hurts too much and it’s too much work to keep missing you every day.
You say you’re not asking for confetti to be thrown, “But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?” The child in you, the purely emotional part of you, really does want the confetti.
Your secret wish, I suspect, is to be, indeed, the prodigal daughter returning. Of course you would not ask for such treatment. And yet that irrational part of you, that child that you were when you left, that child still wants these things.
You’ve been back three years already, but here is a suggestion: Imagine that you are the new person in town and see what friendships and alliances you can make that work for you today.
Look around for people you didn’t used to be so close. See who is available.
Your brother may seem cold but he has made other arrangements and is dealing with his own life. It may be too painful for him to revisit the site of his old attachment to his older sister. Things have happened. You left him. Then he went to war. things happened. He has his own life. So he happened to become good friends with your ex-boyfriend. That may make you feel a pang of regret but it is quite natural. For him, it may have been like keeping a lock of your hair. He may have been far more attached to you than you realized at the time, or realize now. Your boyfriend may have been in a sense a replacement for you, a reminder of what it was like when everybody was cozy and young.
To go to your Easter egg hunt now, he would have to disappoint somebody else. These are the people who have stayed and made lives for themselves. If you look at it from their perspective, it might make sense that they will not change their routines just because you have returned. I think your best bet is to find new routines that do not conflict with theirs. Find routines that add to the mix rather than create difficult choices. Can you go to your ex-boyfriend’s Easter egg hunt?
There is a lot for you to deal with here. To sum up, here are my suggestions:
- Don’t expect these unresolved emotions to just go away.
- Remember that other people are beyond your control
- Try to start fresh, as though you were new in town
- Be of service; when you feel you’re not getting what you want, change your thinking and ask, What can I bring to this situation? How can I contribute?
Wow, that was a lot. I sure wrote a lot this time. Well, I’ve always gone long. Hope you’re not too bored with this!–ct