My Dad was a Surgeon, so I was used to big medical terms being thrown around generically over breakfast.
“He’s had a late stent thrombosis” my Dad might say, explaining a case from work to my Mother, whilst buttering his toast. “Pass the jam?” It was more of a command than a request, and he might sit there expectantly, holding his toast aloft while waiting at me -over his glasses. He’d use medical terms for even the slightest bump or bruise, so when we were hurt it was never just a bump, or a bruise.
If you got hurt at our house, here is how it went:
If Dad was home he usually took a casual look, I mean casual in a way like, I could be dying on the dirt in a pool of drama, and he would approach the situation the same way he might reach over to turn off a faucet. His calm demeanor was maddening. He’d always bend the offending apendage to check for breaks, making me scream even louder, or he’d palpitate the growing bump or bruise as I writhed in agony. While he did this I was usually watching his facial affect for signs of alarm, and would hopefully anticipate a serious diagnosis from his lips, and I would brace myself for his verdict. In my day-dream scenario, he’d scoop me up and hastily carry me to his car, almost forgetting his wallet in his state of panic and concern for me. My head would rest on his strong chest as he told the other kids to “go home now”- as he lowered me tenderly into the passenger seat in the car. He’d glance at me and tell me how brave I was as we rode together toward the emergency room, and I’d try not to cry to much.
Instead, the phrase ”you’ll live” would play out with historical significance well into my adult years, while my day dream promptly *popped* like soap bubbles on a hot summer black-top.
I remember once playing with my little friend, and we were out riding our bikes in front of her house- pretending they were our horses. One minute she was galloping her trusty steed Apollo toward a pioneer wagon ambushed by primitive Apache Indians, and the next she was flying, ass over tea kettle right over the handlebars. She smacked to the ground with an audible thump and then a skid. Unfortunately I recall hearing both, and I swear I could actually hear the skinning of her elbows on the hard unforgiving cement. She lay on the ground in a blurry heap pulling one knee protectively to her chest, moaning and crying out in obvious pain. Her father ran out in a panic having seen the whole scene from the living room window.
I’d gotten to her first after a quick dismount, and carefully knelt beside her, sliding the cloth of her flowered print Carters pant leg over her swelling knee with the same dreadful calm my Dad had demonstrated at home. I palpitated the area to check for further damage as she screamed in protest, and bled from the superficial abrasions on her arms and chin.
I’d said grimly as I tried to deliver the news accurately to her concerned father. I felt it was important to convey the impact of the contusion without worrying him unnecessarily. As we bent over her swelling cap, I could see signs of bruising rising in an angry bump already, and the localized collection of blood outside the blood vessels was a dead giveaway. You can always tell the difference between that and a ecchymosis, which is the spread of blood under the skin in a thin layer, commonly called a bruise. It’s a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless.
This story always got a roar out of our guests as they dined with my parents in our more formal, and very off- limits-to-kids dining room. The “punch line” was always given by my father as he repeated my words verbatim with obvious pride in his voice. I’m not even sure how they’d even known about that day, I mean, it’s not like they were even there, but then, when you are a kid- life was just like that. One minute you think you are having a private or tender exchange with an adult or just working with some situation the best you can, and the next minute it’s splashed all over the dining room echoing against the fine china. Our dinner guests would howl with delight while punctuating the laughter with exclamations such as “precious!” or “she’s her daddy’s girl Doc!”
I found it terribly humiliating.
For as precocious as I was with my Father, I realize with tenderness as I look back, that I was always working diligently to advance our relationship. I see myself as a little girl who desperately wanted him to love me, and to this day I know I would done just short of anything to win his affection.
Not only did I love his company; which was an extremely rare occasion, I also really gravitated toward his strait-forward, no- nonsense approach to life. I respected him deeply, and maintained a healthy dose of fear of him as well. He could be, both unbearably tender (I learned more as I grew); as well as ferociously and unpredictably tempered. I made sure always, to approach him as I might a wild animal, giving him a wide birth, while gingerly testing the atmosphere as if like a finger to the wind- trying to gauge the general direction of things. I’d advert my eyes to show deference, and try not to occur as too needy, or aggressive in my stifled affection as I made my entry into his domain. If he was in a good mood, I found that the more aloof I pretended to be, the more interactive he would try to get, and I think he liked the interpreted challenge. These were our unspoken rules of engagement, but regardless, I always moved into his presence or general vicinity gently, carefully, and fully aware of the ever changing and potentially volatile climate.
When you are a young child, you don’t have any perspective. I know this sounds like the oracle of the obvious, but i’ve found that usually the obvious is often times the most elusive.
As we get older, and add to our foundation of experience we gain some perspective, which usually offers us some wisdom. As long as we are willing to consider various aspects of lives with an open mind, and a gentle heart, we can learn so very much about ourselves from our past.
So many people will say: ”don’t look back!” the same way they might issue a warning as you run back into a burning house to save your precious belongings. Metaphorically- we know that when we run back we have an opportunity to gather those belongings, because in them, they hold the bits and pieces that help us make up the story of our lives. Without these belongings, it’s more difficult to gain access to insights about our own beautiful and unique lives. These stories are what gives us an identity, and a heritage, from which to inform our future.
In proposing this, I also understand that there is a difference between using the past as an excuse to move forward. I’m not talking about using it to make excuses, but instead the value in using it as a key to empowering our future.
One of the most precious things about children is their ability to live in the present moment. This can translate to so much humor as well when you are a parent. When you engage a child in a real life moment and they just “say it like it is” as it’s happening, it’s utterly refreshing. It’s us adults who usually weigh out our careful response before speaking, or take a moment to consider the outcome before making a move. Not kids, they just come out with the darndest things. The innocence of childhood is incredibly beautiful, and can be thought provoking, as well as offer us a glimpse- if only for a moment, into our own.
As we grow from childhood to adulthood, our reaction to our life experience gets less and less spontaneous, and we become more deliberate in our ways of being. Unfortunately, I think its probably true, that as we grow-up we get more disconnected from our essential selves. At the very least we lose access to a much more authentic response, and tragically, to the fundamental curiosity with which we once lived. If we carried that curiosity with us, I think it would be more natural for us to want to look at our past from a place of inquiry- instead of trying to slam the door on it- especially if within it, lingers old wounds that have not healed, or outdated interpretations of events that do not serve us any longer.
For a woman, this might mean she is distracted from her early experiences and never really explores the relationship between her past and present more deeply. She also usually does not consider her life choices as even remotely connected to those of her early experiences at home.
She chooses her profession, trade, and especially her own style of parenting and preference for a partner usually based on many unconscious beliefs, expectations, or feelings of self worth. Very rarely does she take a step back and have the
luxury necessity of reflecting on her own life, unless of course- it falls apart.
When life falls apart, as it most often will, each milestone of failure is actually an opportunity to look at the geography of our lives and the places we’ve already traveled, and choose a new direction. There are always excuses, and usually the big one is time, and money, but in the grande scheme of things, we are penny wise, and pound foolish. If we always do, what we’ve always done; we will always get, what we’ve always gotten. If you do not take the time, or the money to look at what needs to be looked at, then you are usually destined to repeat the past.
Looking back, my relationship to my father would have everything to do with my sense of self worth, and the achievements I thought myself capable of. These unconscious beliefs would dicate my choices, and repeat as patterns into my future.
If I were to carefully analyze my relationship to my father and really look at the messages that I was interpreting from our interactions since i was a child, I can see so much, that makes sense to me now. He may not have intentionally sent the messages I received, but regardless, my perception gave me my own reality.
Given where I was at that time in my life, and given the depth (or lack of it) to my early relationship with him, I can look, not with judgement, but with curiosity at how I thought the world worked., what I thought was expected of me, and who I thought I was supposed to be. But if I never took the time to look.. or explore those beliefs I would not have been able to see an alternative path. Nor, would I have had any power over taking new action in my life to make it any different.
Nobody gives us an operating instructions book when we leave home. As children, we look to our parental figure to model the behavior, structure, and interactions that will make up our “norm” in our own lives until we leave the nest. We then take our experiences and our assumptions with us as we continue to fumble our way through life.
When you consider this reality, it’s easy to understand why history repeats itself over and over again. Why children who did not have a decent upbringing are predisposed to repeating negative cycles and patterns. They are modeling the behavior they witnessed or the family or relationship dynamic that was familiar to them. In this way, perspective and insight is the only way out of repeating the past, or advancing in ways that are not tainted with un-realized assumptions about our own capacity to change it.
What I am pointing to here, is that we all have a “story” that we live our lives from. If I were to look at my story about my relationship to my father, and how that story then informed my choices, then I can now see all of the ways in which I was able to continue making the same choices over and over again. The only way to empowerment is to revisit the story, and dismantle the parts and pieces that disempower us.
The good news is, that as an adult, we can make the choice to do this at any time.
So what was so terrible about my relationship to my Father, you might ask.
Nothing was so terrible. My Dad was who he was, likely due to his own experiences, and his own early childhood imprint.
In his day, girls and women were mostly for enjoyment to look at, and star in supporting roles around men. I’m sure he didn’t purposely belittle me or make me feel inferior, or unimportant, it’s just that I was left to interpret his actions and his behavior, because I was just a little kid, and that’s what little kids do, unless someone teaches them otherwise, through a different set of behaviors, and actions.
My Dad was very intelligent, and brilliant in his field, because he put his intention and attention on this facet of his life, and he challenged himself to grow in this area, always placing an emphasis on livelihood and income.
He was the *perfect* father for me because he stretched me to rub up against things that were really difficult for me, and to make choices about who I was going to be -in spite of him, at times.
I also can look at his parenting with compassion, and observe that he had very little capacity for being with his children. His own childhood had been cut short, and he’d been estranged from his own parents. The Great Depression very much dictated his world view about the importance of industry, and a result, he was almost never home, and almost never present for our most important rites of passage. When he was home, he required respect, and follow-through, and I never once, ever in my life heard my Father apologize for anything, ever. Emotionally he was distracted, and fairly superficial. It was very challenging to gain his attention unless you were able to get him talking about a topic he was passionate about. It was always about him- his needs, and his interests, and so I would gladly sacrifice my own needs for his if that’s what it took. I can also, with complete appreciation, say that I was never left wanting for anything material in my life. I went to the best private schools, we paid my way through college, and even assisted in the down payment of my first home, all as a result of his hard work- thank you Dad.
I grew up thinking that my own family dynamic was an example of what a proper family looked like- and why not, it’s all I’d known. I had no idea what it was like to spend time with a grown adult man, or be given undivided attention. I was clueless when it came to money and understanding how to earn it or budget it, or save it. I had a whole lot of bravado about making my own way in the world masked by a whole lot of self doubt about what I was actually capable of, and deep down, I think I believed in what he’d told me when I got a full scholarship to art school. He declined to send me based on the fact that I would never find a husband there who would be able to adequately provide for me, and I knew, at this moment that my own passions were not important. Whenever I was hurt or going through a big life change that was particularly difficult, he might humor me for a moment, but ultimately, I often felt my feelings on the matter; minimized. If he felt that I was being over-dramatic he’d remind me that “I would live”. This general theme song in my life proves to be the most accurate so far, and you know what? He was 100% absolutely right, 100% percent of the time, and so here I am… alive to tell the tale.
Repeatedly I chose men who would minimize my feelings, or show me evidence of my own self-lacking.
Over and over I would run myself ragged, over-working just to prove i was a hard worker and that I was capable of doing the job. More and more I learned to “suck it up” and stop whining, and just keep moving. I was emotionally distracted, and gun shy when it came to any true intimacy with Men. I had a tendency to put everyones needs before my own, and I had no clue how to interpret real loving behavior from a man and instead felt awkward, stifled, and likely interpreted his true interest as un-manly somehow.
The story goes on to repeat itself any number of times but the point is that I am lucky.
Luckily I kept failing in all the ways I did not want to, and my self worth was so far down the toilet that I was forced to look at that which had been at the very source of my issues. My story of what I was, who I was, and how I should be, were completely dis-empowering me- to the point of actually debilitating me, and consider the possibility of ending my own life, and … wah- wah- wah!
For so many years I had looked to my past, but without being truly willing to come undone with it, and really BE with all the hurt, pain. anger, and confusion that I’d felt all those years in my relationship with my Dad. This did not change my love for him, instead, actually grew my love. There was apart of me that was afraid to look at the possibility of being angry with him- as if the very act was somehow disrespectful after all he’d given me.
Before I was able to just honestly view my story, without judgement of him, or myself, I first had to process all of those thoughts and feelings that scared the shit out of me. I continued to dance around it for a while, because “going there” made me feel bad and I wanted it to just be done with. The more I resisted its pull, the more it persisted.
I have found that it goes on this way, indefinitely, until we say…
….and chose to go in.
Then, we get on our big girl panties, a pair of kick ass boots, and maybe even a cute little shovel and get to the business of digging, so we can get to the business of living.
Dig, and dig, and dig. until you find it.
There is gold down there,
and it’s of great value.
Your life depends on it. Really.