Welcome to Day 20 of “30 Days of Brené Brown.”
I am not fond of yesterday’s post. I don’t like the circumstances that led up to it any more than the way I managed the circumstances. I write all these posts at least a day in advance and I don’t check on the quote until I write them; so the things that’ve happened to me this past week in light of these quotes makes me wonder what next will happen…
Here is today’s quote and it leaves me again about to sleep with one eye open:
Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed. ― Brené Brown
“Compare and despair,” Mom used to say that all the time. Sometimes in context, sometimes not. I remember her saying it to herself too. Mom actively did not like The Now. She found it caustic and harsh. She also claimed she didn’t understand sarcasm, but her illustrations would indicate otherwise. I think what Mom had, was a problem with reality; I feel it’s why she courted the past so aggressively. When we court or nurse the past, we are able to change it too.
One of the most vexing parts of my relationship with her was that she would constantly romanticize or outright reverse events and personal histories; her ability to forget or change certain events, yet retain sonnets, plays, movie casts and literary lore was very hard on those who worked hard to maintain a foothold on, or relationship with, reality.
It’s also a tool for people like her to record events and commit sins of omission.
I made an error last month.
I went to my parent’s house to spend some time with Dad and help him find some illustrations she’d done because he wanted to send some off to relatives who’d requested them. Mom was prolific, obsessive about her illustrations. Like Mitt Romney and his women, she had binders full of illustrations. They were leather binders too. With zippers and satin sashes for marking places. She had spiral-bound notebooks of notebooks. She was always writing, always recording, always savoring a moment — through her lens with all its filters.
I don’t judge her filters anymore. I can’t. It’s futile, actually, to judge anyone’s filters — we are all a little crazy. What I can do is recognize my own filters and also allow someone else’s to record the same events.
The error was that I shouldn’t have gone through the notebooks. Dad also wanted me there to help him sort through some pottery she had and make sense of it. The house is crowded. I will leave it at that. Visually, it can be overwhelming. Mom had a lot of -isms which manifested in the occupation of substantial physical space on this planet.
I have my versions of the past; they are not nearly as pastoral and beatific as my mother’s recollections. Oddly, sometimes our versions were the inverse: hers could be caustic and mine would be righteous.
There was a bag; an adorable leather tote that I saw and I wanted to look into it. Dad said I could have the bag and whatever was in it — I just needed to make sure it wasn’t significant. In that tote, was a small spiral bound notebook.
I had a feeling, “You don’t need to look at the notebook.” I selected it anyway. “You really don’t need to do that, there are no illustrations in it; just go through the other things and sort them out,” the feeling persisted.
I began to leaf through its pages. Seeing Mom’s familiar writing was … familiar. It was expected. I knew that when I did this, I risked the Unknown’s ability to come at me with brute force. These were my mother’s private jottings. I had done this as a child with no reservation ever; usually she had drawings she’d want me to see. I had no interest in those. The things she DIDN’T want me to see… they were the gold.
I was encouraged to invade her privacy, it was part of my mission to keep things as stable as I could for the family. I could feel the cold sensation come over me from those childhood days; the precision to turn each page, not upset the cache lest I be discovered, as the consequences were dire of such a flagrant boundary violation.
Most of her jottings were ISBN numbers for this book or that tote bag; lots of information on Catholic book stores, Orvis catalog information. Stop flipping though the pages. The fact is that I was looking for something about me. I wanted to read something about her love for me. Something about her interest in me, or in my life or how I was doing.
I should have stopped. Boy did I find something about me.
Right there, on one page was her writing. A couple of other peoples’ names were mentioned, no one I recognized and some content about being careful to not base her recovery on another person’s acceptance; that her recovery was about her. I admired that. What that meant to me though was that it was someone else’s commentary because of the names she’d mentioned on the page. Below that commentary was, “Molly was a bad kid.” . . . . . . . . .
This is hard for me.
So, I started to weep a little and my dad looked at me and said, “Oh boy, what did you find? I knew this shouldn’t have –” and he reached out and made the “gimme” motion with his hand. “Gimme.”
He read it.
He sighed and said, “This is tough. But I can tell you right now, this isn’t her. First of all, I don’t know who this name is, but I’m sure she’s on the phone. I’m sure this person was just trying to help her come to terms with her humanity and your humanity. Her disease was a cancer on everyone. But I have no doubt: this isn’t her. She never referred to you as ‘Molly’ in her writings to me. It was always, ‘Mol,'” he said, and I did agree with that.
Lots of notes to me from her were “Mol” seldom “Molly”; the latter was too formal. She would preach ‘Molly,’ but speak to me as ‘Mol’ and she’d rarely write it unless she was inscribing a book. As was the case for my brothers, Percival and Jedediah: we all had shortened names, Perce and Jed. My father also said that Mom referred to me as “challenging” and “difficult” but he said she never used a negative to describe me wholesale. Mom was very careful about that: “love the sinner, not the sin, Maaaal” she would say. She considered any label on a person as a desperate ploy for control.
This is a peril of nostalgia. Her recovery discussion with this other person insisted that I be painted with a severely broad, rigid and uncool brush. My recovery, my memories painted her similarly. Neither of us was / is correct. In her death, I have been able to see Mom as more human and that has given me an opportunity to allow myself that same humanity.
HOWEVER, I’m not able to subscribe to Brown’s assertion that my editing has created a history that never existed. I’m desperately trying to do that! But I can’t — my past is what it is. It has gotten me this far and I hope the memoir writing can let me put it on a shelf. It’s hard on the heart and soul to reengage in some of those spaces. It’s important though, because we all need to validate ourselves.
Mom’s feral grasp on privacy only served to isolate us. I get that boundaries are important, but if one is parsimonious with herself, the appreciation for that person is one-dimensional and one-way.
Finding that notebook sucked the wind out of me, plain and simple. I was looking for rosebuds and sniffing tulips. I suspected that I might come across a cow pie, “But surely,” I thought, “not on my first foray.”
So that’s the takeaway for me: be true to yourself and your legacy. Revising it and steeping it in nostalgia is really not always so great. When we edit out that which demands accountability and magnify that which affords selective, beatific memories, we are basically pooping on the people we’ve hurt or pooping on our own pasts.
As I saw on a Facebook page, Pets, Politics and Pandemonium:
This is such a moving, heart-lurching post. It resonates with me.
I keep thinking about the “bad” child label. It seems to me that mothers from that generation might refer to any child that didn’t just follow what they said blindly as bad, without really meaning they were bad people. I think the label of bad was more about their inability to completely control their children because that seems to have been the goal and the hallmark of “good” parenting back then. I’m glad your dad was there to help sort it out a bit. To be a challenging child sounds so much different, doesn’t it? To be challenging means you were smart enough to see around things, felt things deeply, and expressed yourself. All admirable and brave qualities in a person. I look at my own daughter and I know my grandmother would call her “bad” because she speaks her mind, has opinions, and often sees the ridiculousness of some of the rules enforced by adults with their own agendas. What can we expect really from a generation that thought children should be seen and not heard? I have always hated that parenting slogan! I find my daughter to be a challenge at times, but I admire her zest for life and ability to be open and “real” about her feelings. I learned quickly not to express myself as a child because there were severe consequences. I was dutiful and fearful of the adults in my life. I guess that is why I admire my daughter so much. It may be that your mother admired you because you were able to be alive in a way that she couldn’t be, but saying that is like admitting a weakness so she just wrote “bad kid” instead. My grandmother has always labeled me as a cry baby. Writing this comment made me realize that she probably just envied me, but couldn’t say that. My dad grew up unable to express his feelings in anyway and I can see that my grandmother struggles with that too. She is obsessed with what other people think of her. She’s never just “been”. I think she probably resented my ability to openly feel things. It probably threatened her world view a little or pointed out her shortcomings so she ridiculed me about it. Squashing the humanity out of me was easier than admitting she was lacking in that area.
I think this nostalgia thing is so prevalent around the holidays. I think it’s why people get so depressed. The holidays now are never as wonderful as we remember them to have been in the past. I think this sugar coating of the past is a survival mechanism, but sometimes it goes too far. I mean, look at child birth and parenting. Older people say there kids were perfect babies who slept through the night and started reading at age 2. They forget the bad stuff. We forget how painful child birth was…I imagine so we will be willing to do it again. Somehow though, it has trickled into other life areas where it doesn’t serve us as well. We compare our present to an idealized past and come up short and then feel bad that we aren’t recreating some imagined magic. I think our life stories are part reality and part mythology and we just have to be OK with that. Sometimes the mythology part is what gives us the courage to keep going. I would never take that away from someone. Sometimes we cling to a negative story because it proves that we were able to overcome it. Thinking about all of this can make you feel a bit dizzy!
wow, lil, what a great and deep comment. i feel you got some things out and that’s awesome. it was also incredibly helpful to me. “seen and not heard.” <– how damaging. we are results of the results of that. we bang loudly now! how wide that pendulum has swung. i was always considered spirited and alive; i know my mother valued that in me, when it was helpful to her.
that you used the phrase "see around things" really resonates with me as well; my father has always considered me as someone who "sees around corners" — for the longest time i considered that an insult, that i was nosey and a panic, but now i see it, thanks to you, as an asset. sigh. how glad i am of you and your kindness and words, always. xoxo
I saw something the other day that said “Remember – these will be the good old days”