My Mother, My Self

January 30, 2011 § 1 Comment

I know there’s a common fear among young people that they will turn into their parents. I’m not sure I ever really “feared” this, mainly because my parents are pretty cool people, but in recent months I’ve noticed how incredibly real that change is. I am changing, developing into a mature adult that very closely resembles the two people who raised me.

It may be unfair to divide the roles my parents held during my childhood since, admittedly, their roles were anything but concrete. What I do remember about my mother’s role, though, was her insistence on cleaning house on the weekends. I remember her getting up early, cooking breakfast (usually for herself, but sometimes she would tempt me out of bed with bacon or pancakes), and blasting Billy Joel or the Beatles as she cleaned the house. The rest of us slugged around on the weekends, rarely getting out of pj’s and bathrobes, getting off the couch only to use the bathroom or grab some munchies. For the rest of us, weekends were a slow time where we could turn off our brains and bodies and rest. From my mother’s perspective, though, I expect it was quite different. Weekends were when non-work work got done, when she could finally do the laundry that had been piling up or vacuum all the tumbleweeds of doghair from the floor. It was a time of opportunity, a time to seize the day.

Mom used to make lists of things to do. Although I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, Mom asked me to help out a lot. She’d let me choose off the list the things I wanted to do, and I would begrudgingly half-agree to do some of it, but I rarely came through and when I did, I half-assed it. I remember weekends as my mother hurricaning throughout the house, leaving cleanliness and tidiness in her wake, while the rest of us sat, unmoved.

I felt some guilt for my lack of assistance as I got a little older, but I didn’t fully understand my mother’s frustration until now. My home, my tiny basement apartment in a rowhouse in Washington, DC, is never sufficiently clean. If the bathroom is clean, then there are dishes in the sink. If there are no dishes in the sink, then there is a pile of laundry to be done. Everywhere I look I see things that need to be done. Now, I live with a man, a fully capable man who is two years my senior. My expectations are that he too will look around and see all the things that need to be done and commit a time in the very near future to do them. Here is where my mother and I share a fatal flaw — we fail to realize that our housemates cannot pry their eyes from their tvs, computers, or iphones long enough to notice that things need to be done and certainly not long enough to actually do them. I’ve witnessed the dramatic and inevitable decline of productivity when the tv is turned on in our home. Even I, the occasional busy bee, am drawn into the bright light and dull noise of the television. Day after day I feel like I’m wasting away because I can’t bring myself to stay away from the television once it’s on. And it’s always on. Always. Alec turns it on the second he gets out of bed, even in the mornings when there isn’t time to watch anything and the only thing on is traffic (which doesn’t affect us cause lord knows we don’t drive here). When he gets home, it’s on. When I go to sleep, it’s on. When I picture Alec in my head now, all I see is his motionless figure staring at the television. It’s infuriating. It’s surely the same thing my mother felt when she tried to rally the troops and we all ignored her efforts. My fury is such that sometimes I want to take my hammer and bash in the television, just to see what our lives would be like without it. What would we accomplish? How much more of DC would we explore? How many more books would we read? What new hobbies would we discover? There’s a world of possibilities outside the television.

Don’t get me wrong, I love sitting on my ass and vegging out. I do, I admit it. But I get tired of it, I get incredibly restless when it’s gone on too long, and the entire time it’s happening I keep thinking “What else could I be doing if I could just bring myself to turn this thing off?”

My parents have always had a … unique perspective of the television and computers, for that matter. As a child, I had a limited amount of television I could watch a day. I think it was shorter than an hour at some early stage, but for the majority of my time under their roof, there was an hour limit on tv time. When we got a computer, the same restriction was applied. We had only one television and only one computer. This is, of course, absolutely unheard of in civilized America where there’s a television to every room. When we moved beyond our boxy PowerMac, we did accumulate a number of computers and the time limit disappeared, but the television restriction remained in place. Tv was my guilty pleasure, and I would sneak television shows whenever I could. After I got caught, the tv was put in the downstairs closet for a full year. Again, absolutely unheard of in American society. Obviously, we survived. And now I long for that kind of simplicity.

As I get older, as I mature or develop or whatever you want to call it, I find myself slowly developing major aspects of my parents’ roles. I wouldn’t mind except I feel that it’s changing my relationship with my housemate. Constantly I find myself acting like a parent to my boyfriend, something that makes me feel guilty and sick to my stomach, yet I can’t help it. What I have yet to develop is my mother’s saintlike patience. She would have tried to work around him, cleaning and humming to herself, getting the things done that need to get done because she accepts the fact that no one else but her will do it.

I’m not quite there yet… I started cleaning around him, then got pissed off, and left.

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On Childhood

January 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

I have been listening to This American Life lately as an alternative to the increasingly depressing and infuriating news on NPR. The stories vary, of course, but for the most part they are interesting enough to keep me listening and only on occasion are they as heartbreaking as the news. I listened to a few stories that featured people recalling childhood events: some positive, some negative, some terrifying, some heartwarming events. This led me to consider my own childhood.

For the most part, when I hear people recount tales of school days or hot summers, they have a tone of wistfulness, filled with that Rockwell-esque nostalgia for those “carefree” days. As I get older (and please note I’m still quite young), my memories of my own childhood fade. As far as my pre-high school days are concerned, I don’t remember much of being in school or even being with friends. Mostly I remember being alone, playing in my room, listening to music (I listened religiously to Casey Kasem’s countdown of the weekly Top 40), or drawing. If I think hard enough, I can recall details of play dates in kindergarten and birthday parties, but my emotional impression of childhood isn’t what one would call “warm and fuzzy.” I never felt carefree, although I’m sure I was in a sense.

Let’s talk about what I miss most about my childhood. I think I spent an unusual amount of time with my parents, at least when compared to my peers. For the majority of my childhood I thought my parents existed only for me, that their sole purpose in life was to take care of me, so I demanded an unfair amount of their time, energy, attention, and money. I complained all the time and was never satisfied with what I had, always thinking that I “needed” more of x or less of y. High school, what I consider the end of my childhood (I’m sure most people do, but considering some of the kids I went to college with I don’t think it’s fair to generalize), was the most interesting time for me, at least when I look back in retrospect at my relationship with my parents. It wasn’t an easy time, that’s for sure. I attended art school which meant longer hours (8.5 hrs of classes a day, 45 minutes travel time to and from school, plus homework) and the complications of class. Not class in the studious sense but class in the economic sense. I wasn’t really aware of our financial status until I suddenly found myself around people in the upper middle class. That caused a world of trouble and stress between myself and my parents, mainly because I was ashamed that I couldn’t have money and use money the same way my friends did. My friends all got their own cars for their birthdays. I shared a minivan with my father, and I had to pay for the privilege to do so. I worked at a restaurant Thursdays through Sundays. Most of my friends didn’t work, choosing to drink, smoke, or shop away their weekends. Now of course I see how my parents did the best they could and that it made me a better person in the end. But at the time, there were many fights, many tears, and many slammed doors.

I mentioned that I never considered my childhood “carefree.” Even as a young child, I was somewhat preoccupied with death and dying. As I got older, I grew only more concerned with the death of those around me. The thought of my own death still scares me sometimes, simply because the concept of non-existence is so foreign to my pitiful human brain, but for the most part, I was far more petrified of losing someone I loved. Non-existence I can deal with, but knowing that I might have to live another day without certain people in the world was more than I can handle, something even today I still grapple with. Anyway, my emotional turmoil over the issue of death reached its peak when I was in high school. I would go hang out with friends and cry the entire drive home, heartbroken over the simple fact that one day they would no longer be in the world. I had the same feeling for my parents. I remember even when we would have a fight, I would always call my mom or dad to tell them I loved them, just in case something happened to them on the way home. I wanted them to know that I loved them. I mention this not only to illustrate how I don’t look back on childhood and think “oh man, those were the good ol’ days” but also to illuminate another element of my relationship with my parents.

It couldn’t have been easy to deal with a depressed child. I’m sure they had a hard enough time as it was trying to get my brother and I not to kill each other (it wasn’t until very very recently that we’ve begun to get along, or at least talk without the conversation ending in a fight). I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to try and keep a home together while their children were fighting tooth and nail to tear it apart. I made matters worse by being constantly depressed. I cried all the time and would stay shut up in my room for days at a time, emerging from it only to get food or a drink of water. My depression was exacerbated by social issues, too, but for the most part it was generated by my inability to move past the “death” issue. That’s not really something you can make better by offering advice or going on a shopping spree. That’s not the predictable “teenage trauma” that other high schoolers seem to go through. My parents couldn’t make it better.

As I’ve gotten older, my relationship with my parents has changed dramatically. Well, not so much with my mom as with my dad. I have the best mom. Seriously, I’ve heard everyone else talk about their mothers and I hands-down have the best mom. There’s not a mean bone in her body and, excluding the death thing, she always knows the perfect thing to say to make you feel better. She always puts her children first and never fails to surprise me with her constant generosity and thoughtfulness. We’ve had a fairly consistent, friendly and affectionate relationship which has changed little even since I was a small child.

My father and I have had a more… explosive relationship. I look back with nostalgia on my high school years because I think that was the time my dad and I were closest. We fought all the time, it’s true, but we really understood each other, I think. We used to hang out all the time too. When I dormed briefly in high school, Dad would pick me up for coffee every Wednesday. We’d go to our favorite Starbucks downtown and just talk. We talked about everything and there was little judgment between us. When I moved out of the dorms, we hung out mostly on Sundays. I would go with him to church and then we’d get lunch, coffee, and drive around town. We were shopping for a new house, so we’d go look at whatever open houses we could find or just drive around to see what fixer-upers were for sale. We were pretty close then.

The issue now with my parents is that I’m not a child anymore. Although they’ve never really “treated me like a child,” I still always felt like one. I always felt incredibly dependent on them, so I elevated all my little achievements of independence beyond what they deserved. I began to feel guilty about what all they did for me, whether it was paying for dinner when I was home for college or paying my rent when I moved out of the dorms. I did the best I could to be independent, I even worked two jobs one semester to be able to buy food and pay my own bills. But my parents always gave me extra money, always knowing that I was down to my last dollar. That guilt has created tension between us now, although it’s probably one-sided. I feel guilty because they still pay my phone bill and because they’ve bought my plane tickets home since I moved to DC. I resent that I can’t help but accept their financial assistance, because I feel like I’m still not “truly” independent. I’ve always resented feeling like a child around them, and that resentment tends to explode as my guilt for the little assistance they offer me grows. I guess it’s complicated.

My point is that in high school, even though we fought, I understood our relationship. I understood where I was going and mostly what their expectations were. Now that I’ve graduated college, things are so much more vague. I keep expecting our relationship to settle back down, to find its comfortable little niche, but it doesn’t. I think about my parents all the time, and relish the time I get to spend with them, but we fight so much the first few days I’m home and I’m having trouble sorting it all out. I assume the tension is from trying to reconcile being a child and being an adult, in my eyes and their own, and from trying to dispel my guilt about asking so much from them and being unable to repay any of it. I look forward to the day when I can stand on my own two feet in front of my parents and greet them like the good friends they are. I look forward to move past this awkward stage, to move on from the guilt I feel about my childhood, to forgive myself for making their lives so hard, and to accept that I may never be able to pay them back.

my struggle with tolerance

January 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking about bullying lately. My father recently discussed his experience with bullies as a child in his blog, which just happened to coincide with bully-themed conversations on NPR and SmarthMouths (a sadly now-discontinued podcast). I kept thinking about my own experience in school, struggling to recall a time when I had been bullied. Coming up with nothing, I tried to remember any stories my friends might have mentioned when they were bullied, but still I couldn’t come up with anything. I had many friends in elementary and middle school, and I was extremely privileged to go to an arts high school, where being gay was cool and wearing a cape to school was normal. Not that bullying didn’t go on in our school–it most certainly did–but it was on an intellectual platform, not a physical or purely social platform. The few kids who were bullied were conservative and religious, and although I don’t recall anyone confronting them outside the classroom, in class they endured intellectual bullying simply for being “close-minded” or “ignorant,” as seen from the rest of the class’s point of view. Although I feel some remorse for how those children were attacked, I still feel that we were right and they were wrong and that they should have benefited from us trying to open their minds to our “liberal” ideas.

While brooding on this on my walk to work, it hit me. That moral and intellectual high ground I feel when thinking about those kids who I helped bully in high school actually repressed my own memories of being bullied by conservative, religious children. To be honest, I was quite shocked that I never labeled it as bullying. In high school I referred to it as “social ostracism,” which is of course an applicable term but is also revealing of why I was bullied in the first place. My only personal experience with being bullied is with Christian youth groups (if not Christian churches as a whole–I feel confident the adults bullied me or socially ostracized me as well) which may have some influence on my personal feelings towards Christianity. In contrast to the bullying of my high school, the bullying I endured was not intellectual at all, but instead was simply a knee-jerk reaction to me being different. More than that, I’m sure, I think their reaction was so strongly negative towards me not just because I was different but because I thought I was better than them FOR being different. I think that’s precisely the reason why it took me so long to acknowledge my own experience being bullied, because I disregarded those years as I grew older because I still think I’m better than them.

I bring up these tales of bullying because I want transparency in this entry. I have personal negative experience with Christianity which may have an influence on how I feel about Christians and being Christian, so I want it out on the table. That said, I do not think I would feel differently had I not been “socially ostracized” by Christian groups.

I didn’t always have the strong aversion to Christianity and people who identify themselves as Christians that I do today. I quite enjoyed church as a child (not that I always went, cause I certainly didn’t). Mostly I just liked singing hymns and listening to my dad preach. He’s always had a knack for making bible stories seem simple and relatable, and he never read his sermons, something I appreciated so much more when I realized how many other pastors do read their sermons. He was a refreshing change from the pastors who spend 45 minutes yelling at the congregation, spitting out images of fire and brimstone. Thankfully, my experience with Southern Baptist preachers were limited, since I only went to those churches the few times of year that my time with my grandmother would fall on a Sunday. As a child, I loved the idea of heaven and strongly hoped that God was that charming fatherly figure who would love me no matter what and who always had his eye on me. I don’t think I ever believed in hell, mainly on the basis that I couldn’t reconcile the “God loves everyone” sermons with the “if you do X, Y, or Z you’re going to H-E-L-L” threats. I think that was the first “red flag,” so to speak, of my happily church-less future. I think I confused wishing with praying, too, as a child. I talked to my fatherly God all the time, when I was at home in my room, on a walk in the woods, or riding in the car with my parents. When I “prayed” I was always wishing for something, for a pony, for a boy to ask me to the dance, for me to get an A on the next test, always with the faith that someone was listening. I did eventually get a pony, many boys asked me to many dances, and I got A’s on many tests, but at some point my little child brain realized there was a disconnect.

I really resent the phrase “she lost her faith” because it seems to suggest that there’s something to be mourned, that faith is the most important thing and that now I am less of a person because I don’t have it, some pitiable wretch destined to wander lost in the woods until God touches me to be saved. Again, I resent that. I’m not even sure it’s relevant in my case because I’m not totally convinced I had “true” faith to begin with, if there is such a thing. When I look back on it, on how I felt as a child when I thought about God, it seems to be on par with “faith” in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. I think I stopped believing in God when I stopped believing in Santa. That doesn’t deny the fact that at some point in my early life I did genuinely believe they existed, certainly that’s true, but I think that that is a very specific kind of faith that can only apply to a child. Why is it acceptable for adults to stop believing in Santa but not stop believing in God?

Let’s keep with the Santa-God belief comparison, since I think that will help me express how I feel about Christians and Christianity. I never “lost my faith” and I am not some pitiable wretch wandering lost in the woods. I am a critical thinker who has searched my feelings and my thoughts and have come to the conclusion that God cannot and does not exist. I consider it a natural progression for a young intellectual and I would not be surprised if every one of my peers and the children of the future generations come to the same conclusion. I consider myself a realist. None of my friends are particularly religious. Most are agnostic or atheist, and the few who go to church only go when their parents invite/force them. I like that they are not religious, I like knowing I can talk rationally with them about anything, that we won’t run into the wall of “this is what I believe” when we should be talking about “this is what I think.” I feel relieved when I talk to people who are atheists. There are no walls, no discrepancies, no “the Bible says this so I can’t accept X, Y, or Z.” It’s like sanity is restored.

Let’s talk about that sanity. As I said before, I’ve always been a critical thinker. In college, I majored in Religion (along with Art History, which people always seem to be baffled by but anyone who has been to a museum or taken a class in the subject(s) can CLEARLY see why they relate). Although studying Religion academically had very little effect on my own lack of religious beliefs, I did become increasingly baffled by how my classmates could study their own religions yet still remain committed (no pun intended) and faithful to that religion. The more I studied, the more fictional and political religions as a whole became, but especially Christianity, which I studied in greater depth than the others. Let’s connect the fiction of Christianity with the fiction of Santa Claus.  Both to me are complex, with long, bloody histories that incorporate multiple cultures, figures, and beliefs, to form what they are today. If we as a collective society saw an adult who still believed in Santa Claus we would have that uncomfortable moment of considering the mental stability of that person, wondering if perhaps they are mentally handicapped, restricted to the psyche of a child. Similarly, when someone says “I’m Christian” I have this automatic cringe of “what’s wrong with your brain?” I don’t understand how it is unnatural for an adult to believe in Santa but not to believe in God and I can’t help but automatically think that there’s something wrong with them in the head. To take it one step further, when I meet people who have studied religions academically who still believe in God, I can’t help but think they have emotional issues as well, which is the only way I can account for the obvious mental disconnect between knowing the history of your religion and choosing to still be a constituent. I respect atheists more than the casual religious person because I honestly think that atheists are smarter.

This in itself is not a problem for me. My problem is my increasing inability to tolerate religious folk. As I become increasingly interested in what’s going on in my local and national political arenas, I see how often Christianity is brandished as a weapon or how its belief system throws up a brick wall within those arenas. It’s absolutely infuriating. But I can’t rally against those people because my very own family is utterly entrenched in Christianity. I need to develop a tolerance for Christians because it will make me so much happier (or at least make me far less angry) and will allow me to interact more comfortably and honestly with my family (or so I hope).

Besides the fact that I think they must be mentally crippled or emotionally compromised in some way, I find it hard to define exactly what bothers me so much about them participating in the greater institution of Christianity. I don’t mind personal spirituality so much, I think it can bring peace to many people and help improve the lives and minds of those in unfortunate circumstances. I envy spiritual people and their seeming inner peace and connection with the universe. I probably have a naive view of it anyway. Back to the greater institution of Christianity…

I remember the last time I was in church vividly. I went to hear my father preach at some tiny church in some tiny town in the middle of nowhere in Alabama. I knew what to expect, that predictable Southern greeting of “Well how are YOU?” and the “your daughter is so pretty!” which I’m pretty sure is just another way of saying I’m young. They always follow up with “We’re SO glad you could be here with us today.” Mom and I sat together on the predictable wooden, straight-backed pew, that creaked when we sat down. Mom sat on the aisle, I sat on the window side. They were simple windows, tall and then, unstained and unglazed. They are probably opened in the summer time, since it’s cheaper than a/c. I remember sitting there wondering what Dad would be preaching about, but as the service wore on, I remember feeling strained, anxious, and almost claustrophobic despite the congregation barely filling up 1/5 of the pews. I remember feeling desperate and panicky, and I envisioned jumping out of the window multiple times, simply to get out of there. Believe me, I don’t feel this way often. The last time I felt that way was almost ten years ago, on a camping trip. I remember feeling the same blind panic when confronted with two rocks, pressed closely together, that the trail we were following went through. Everyone else passed through without a second thought, squeezing through the pass without hesitation. I stood, a few yards away, nearly in tears and frozen in the face of a path I absolutely did not want to follow. If my memory serves correctly, I could have simply walked all the way around the rock outcrop to avoid the narrow squeeze, but instead I tried to force myself to confront my claustrophobia. The parallel seems strange and I can’t fully understand why I felt the same in church as I felt on the trial, but the feeling was unmistakable. Church services, at least in white churches, are suffocating in their dry traditions. Honestly, when viewed from the outside, their rituals are downright creepy and should be outdated, as far as theology is concerned when looked at historically. I can’t understand why people want to subject themselves to such dry, uninspiring, eery experiences week after week. That also sends up a red flag for me, about their emotional and mental stability.

When looked at from a very specific perspective (which has been repeated to me from my father in defense of Religion), churches and other religious institutions offer a certain stability to society. It helps bring people together, form communities, and lead to social work. These are all good things. But. And there’s always a but. But hasn’t our society moved beyond the need for these social structures to be based on Santa Claus-like fictions? I am worried that churches help keep archaic belief systems alive, when we as human beings should be able to move past this. When people say “I am a Christian” I feel such a discomfort, quite similar to how one feels when a friend justifies her abusive boyfriend’s behavior. They constantly lie to themselves to make them feel better or to justify the injustice in the world, and that I cannot ever be comfortable with. Why not join a Zumba class to better yourself and be a part of a community? Or join non-profit or volunteer groups? I feel like we should be beyond using religion as an excise to further community.

Let’s talk about furthering community, which is part of the reason I wish to be more tolerant of religious people. My family is a huge part of it, one that I don’t think I’ve emphasized enough in this entry. I love my family more than anything and I hate thinking that I’ve lost respect for them because of what they choose to believe. I hate cringing every time they pray over dinner or put out requests for prayers for something or someone (I see prayer as an entirely selfish endeavor, selfish in that you’re too lazy to do things for yourself but also selfish in that you think God will interfere in the world to satisfy what you think you need). I hate losing respect for the ones I love. My need for tolerance goes beyond that, though. I listen to NPR on a daily basis at work, a solid 8-hr stream of how the world is all wrong and how humans are tearing each other apart. NPR has made me want to be better, to make the world a better, safer, happier place. An impossible task, and one I will be dwelling on in a number of entries in the future, but one that requires a tolerance of religious people. I feel like I have a healthy and happy acceptance of most cultural differences and generally of most religions, but I feel like Christianity most negatively impacts world issues, and it will require a lot of tolerance and understanding in order to make a difference. My biggest hurdle is tolerance of Christianity and I hope I learn it, for my sake, my family’s sake, and for the world’s sake. After all, the world can never have too much tolerance.

change is good

January 12, 2011 § Leave a comment

As you may have noticed, my attempt at a regularly updated art blog has failed. From now on this blog will have a larger scope, although it will return to its initial art-centered theme for future entries. I find myself needing an outlet. There are things that I need to express, need to think through or analyze outside of my head. I’ve never really been one to censor myself, but I’ve realized over the years of my short, but dynamic, existence that there are thoughts that I perhaps should not discuss directly with others. Mainly I fear that there is no “happy end” to those conversations, even with the ones I love most. I fear I will offend them to the extent that our relationship will be forever handicapped. I also feel shame for thinking some things that I do, so regret or embarrassment follows conversations where I am open and honest fully. So I thought this blog would be an appropriate alternative. I am not forcing anyone into reading this, so I won’t beat myself up for offending you. I am writing these entries to keep from exploding and to save the man I live with from having to confront these topics himself. Lord knows he has enough to deal with.

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