The Wisdom of the Mother

I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a cancer survivor. I have been a body worker, a meditator, a yogini. I have participated in Gender Reconciliation work, M. Scott Peck’s Community Building work. I have walked a path of inner healing and physical healing, and I have shared that path with others in my work. I have a particular perspective on current political events and broader world events.

I am very aware that our culture not only undervalues women; it doesn’t actually perceive the Divine Feminine in men, women, children, or the Planet. The Feminine is quite literally invisible. Machismo, brute force, power over, individualism are a comic book version of Masculinity, and they are exalted and revered, separated in some sort of sick, psychic surgery from any balancing power. The Mother, whether she washes dishes, soothes a sick child, or resides beneath our feet as the Planet who feeds and holds us, is invisible. We step on her without awareness for her consciousness. We don’t say thank you. Her work is not valued. God help us if we have emotions or intuition! Because no outside authority stamps them as “Truth,” they are fluff; they are a mere distraction from productivity and consuming. Story is seen as child’s play, rather than as our creative force expressed in the world. Our art is entertainment, rather than the means by which we digest life and use its nutrients to heal and grow. The power of attention and deep listening is something we feel but have so few words to express. The ability to hold experience – our own or someone else’s – takes our breath away when we experience it, yet it is so hard to find language to describe.

I come from a patriarchal, Christian religious background. It never occurred to me when I was in it to question where the Mother was. It was a given that God was our Father, but the marked absence of the Mother was never spoken, seen, acknowledged. It strikes me as the height of hubris to assume God would declare himself Father without a Mother. I don’t think it was God. I think it was men who didn’t value the Mother who decided anything that smacked of feminine religious experience would be demonized. Divination? Satan. Intuition? Witchcraft. Emotion? Sin. (I am not saying that these things are the realm of women only; I am saying that if it was considered to be “of women” by those in power, it was historically branded as evil by those who could not control it.)

And now we face a United States in which our religiosity has led to Donald Trump. He is the expression of evangelical Christianity and its immoral angling for power at the expense of integrity and the common sense of the body. When we are aware of and in connection with our bodies, we don’t pollute our water and our air. We don’t poison our soil. Or, as my own mother would have said, “You don’t shit where you eat.”

But we seem to have a deeply held belief that drives our actions that says we can take without giving; we can have power over without responsibility for care.

Breast cancer was a deeply physical and spiritual disease process for me. My breasts being cut off felt like both a physical violence and a metaphor. The bar is closed, folksBack off from the nurturing of others at your own expense, mother. You need to protect your own resources, or you will die. You will have nothing left to give, my cancer experience seemed to say.

I dove down deep, went inward. I found there the wounds of my earliest childhood, wounds passed down from an equally wounded mother. She could not validate my feelings, my experience, my existence, and so I walked through much of my life with a gaping hole where the validation of my being ought to have been. After cancer, I dove down into that wound, feeling instinctively that healing that energetic part was essential to my greater healing.*

Then Donald Trump became the president elect. As I write this, he will be inaugurated tomorrow. Every intuitive cell in my body says he is dangerous to our survival, not only the United States but also the whole interconnected world in which we live. He’s the proverbial drunk, molesting uncle you shouldn’t leave alone with your children, and his own words indict him as such. But his over-masculinized form of power and control – so valued by a vocal minority – have positioned him to rule.

I dive down deep into my own healing again. I am learning as I get older that all my grief and fear is something I need to own and love. But I cannot stop there, not if I take seriously my responsibility as a mother who simultaneously protects The Mother and depends upon Her. I must protect the sanctity of my inner wellbeing.

Light bearers right now are something like a single parent. The father figures at the helm have power, but they take no responsibility, and they aren’t living in the trenches. We need to dig deeply into our known experience; heal our wounds; love life; and love powerfully, love deeply, love wisely. We must say no to the violence, even the violence we perpetuate against ourselves. Maybe especially the violence we perpetuate against ourselves. We need to dig deep and find words to bring our divinity to awareness and to own its power, the legitimate power of fierce, gritty love; the transformative power of quiet presence; the healing power of embodiment. Let us all find within us the Good Mother, and in so doing protect The Great Mother.

*A great body of research and literature exists on the role of early life trauma and its impact on life expectancy and disease processes. Two great books on the topic include Gabor Maté’s When the Body Says No and Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score. This is not to blame anyone for their individual diseases, but rather to show that generational trauma impacts generational health. Personally, I empower myself to know that I am not helpless in the face of those traumas; I release blame, as it does not help me to love whatever lifespan I am given on this earth.

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Birth of a book

This week, I self-published The Wilderness of Motherhood: A memoir of hope and healing. It’s available for sale on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions.

I started the book the day after Isaac was born, recording his birth while it was still fresh in my mind.

Five weeks later, my mother died, and I wrote about that strange, healing, difficult time with my mother.

A series of essays began in those early days that eventually became this book.

That was almost eight and a half years ago. I wondered many times if I were a neglectful mother of this book. I knew a book was possible, but I was also a single parent, working. I got married when Isaac was four, and we moved into a house and newly married life, and I changed jobs and careers. The book needed editing; it needed cover art; it needed technical details managed, such as the lay-out, marketing plan and self-publishing channel to use. It needed a lot that I wasn’t sure how to make happen, and it took these eight years to complete.

Fortunately or unfortunately, labor of a real baby is over relatively quickly. We have little control over how labor progresses, and then we have a baby (whether we feel ready or not!).

This Book Baby relied on the force of my will, the assistance and availability of friends, my ability or inability to give it attention, and a mysterious gestation time to mature.

It’s here now. I think I’m ready, and I hope you’ll join with me in celebrating its arrival. I have to say, at this point, it’s sleeping through the night, requires a manageable amount of tending, and has met with a kind and generous welcome from friends and family.

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Connecting with Isaac through Maya Angelou

I’ve been reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographies. I’m sorry to admit I didn’t pick them up until she’d died.

This morning over breakfast, Isaac and I had a rare opportunity to talk alone. John is traveling for work, and Isaac’s camp doesn’t start until 8:45, so we had some unexpected and welcomed leisure to chat.

I told him I’d been reading the stories of a woman who had a son when she was only 16 years old. Back then, women didn’t have as many options: she had to put him in 24-hour/day care and see him only one day a week for much of his young life. Then, when he was about Isaac’s age, he stayed with his grandmother while Maya traveled as a dancer and singer with the European tour of Porgy and Bess, a welcomed career gem that gave her the chance to find her profession and the ability to support her child. She was gone for several months, and they both missed each other terribly. She came home early because her son was not doing well, and her family could no longer care for him. When they reunited, he clung to her and was afraid she would leave him again.

Isaac asked if I would ever go away like that. I told him I would not.

I told him that when I was pregnant with him, I worked very hard to get work that I could do when he slept and, later, use only minimal childcare. I didn’t want to spend 10 hours/day between travel to-and-from work, plus work itself. I wanted to be with him. I was older when I had him, and I had some options open to me that Maya did not.

He closed his eyes. Tears welled up under his eyelashes, puddles that sat there as he spoke.

“I don’t like going to school. I miss being with you,” he said, eyes still closed.

I asked him if he wanted a hug. He nodded, tears miraculously staying put under his inward gaze.

I knelt beside him and held him.

I told him I felt the same way when I was his age. I actually stayed home from school to be with my mom, but I got in trouble. The truant officer came to our house. I told him that parents who don’t send their children to school can be arrested and go to jail. Then we really wouldn’t see each other. We both laughed. We shared a lingering hug before moving on with the day.

We drove to Junior Water Sports Camp, a five-minute ride down the road. He asked me if four-dimensional bubbles were actually black holes. I didn’t know. He thought that was a good question for his Aunt Catherine, who has a PhD and studied black holes.

When I dropped him off, he ran off with hardly a backward glance. We were both sated from our time of connecting over Maya Angelou.

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Art and vulnerability in wilderness places

On Mother’s Day eve, I read from my book to a warm, friendly group of both friends and strangers who had come to reflect on motherhood, whether as mothers themselves; as children of mothers; as those who wish to be mothers; as co-parents. Some had warm, happy memories of motherhood, and others had more conflicted and challenging memories and feelings.

I read from Isaac’s birth story, the story of our bonding immediately after and the profound shift that happened in my universe from that event, and from the story of my mother’s death, five weeks after Isaac’s birth. It was intense stuff, and I was deeply touched that, as one person told me, “you could have heard a pin drop” as I read. I was moved by re-entering those stories, and my audience touched their own deep experiences in those moments.

So it was a surprise to me that the shaking and trembling I felt as I started to read did not dissipate. Rather, it got quite pronounced. First, I searched futilely for a middle rung on the chair for my feet; then I used one hand to steady the other; when that didn’t work, I rested my hands and the folio containing the reading on my shaking knees. Nothing really worked.

Why didn’t I write a book on something just a little less vulnerable, I had to ask myself. Something lighter (I really enjoy comedy and could use a laugh or two)? Something that wouldn’t make me sweat, shake and choke back tears at the most evocative moments?

People told me that they went to their own deeply personal and deep places during that reading. 

“I’d forgotten what childbirth was like; I remembered my own birth experience – I was there again – as I heard you read,” one woman shared.

“I was with my mom when she died, and I relived that moment tonight,” one of the men shared.

Not everyone wants to go to intense and deep places in their memories. For our time of creating together in painting and drawing and collage, however, those deep places fed the art that each of us wanted to create. We could explore the joys of mothering or being mothered; we could also explore the shadows and the ambiguities. Greeting cards don’t often give us such nuanced ways to express those profound and human feelings.

That vulnerability that I clearly felt – and shared transparently with others – gave them permission to do the same in their art. And they took that permission and ran with it. What a beautiful expression of community in wilderness places. Image

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Lora at a Mother's Day Eve reading and art journaling event.

Reading from my book on Mother’s Day Eve at Still Cellars, in Longmont (CO).

Lora at a Mother’s Day Eve reading and art journaling event.

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Finding My Father

I never knew my father, and I had little hope of finding him.

My mother alone held the truth, and it was, at best, clouded by her schizophrenic filters and distortions. She was pretty sure his name was Frank, that he was a professional basketball player with whom she’d shared a blind date and a bottle of wine. Frank had no idea I was conceived, and I assumed that he would not welcome my finding him, if I ever did. I still wondered through the years: what does he look like? Do I look like him? Did I get my writing ability – or my health challenges – from him?

Throughout the years, I’ve used the internet to look for any clues, and I have come up with nothing. I searched as recently as last year, and then I gave up. By now, he would be at least in his 70s, if not older, and he could very well be dead.

In February, I began a search for more information on my mother’s family tree. In truth, I was looking for more than any family tree could tell me: I wanted to feel connected with my family roots, to understand more of where I come from and the meaning of my life. I knew on some level I would not find that on Ancestry.com but still continued my search for immigration, birth and death records.

I looked up various records for all the family I could find, and at one point, I stumbled onto something curious: someone had posted my mom’s high school graduation picture on his family tree. I didn’t recognize his name, and I sent him a note asking how he knew my mom. Since I’d found no living relatives to date, I was curious. I had no idea whether this person I contacted was family, a distant cousin perhaps, and if his being family would be a good thing. My family was an entity I needed to approach with great care, given the history of abusers and mental illness I knew of from my mother’s stories.

Several days later, I got a message back from “Larry.” He said he’d met my mom on a blind date, dated her in 1957-58, and that he’d loved her and wanted to marry her. He said it was the biggest mistake of his life that he missed that opportunity.

Honestly, at this point, I was a little intrigued but not terribly so. My mom dated a lot of men, and a few had asked to marry her. I didn’t much like my mom’s boyfriends, and I didn’t know what he could tell me that I didn’t already know. However, he said he had things to tell me about my mom, and I was about to shut down my free trial membership to Ancestry.com, so I gave him my email address, “friended” him on Facebook, and I let go of my ancestry search for the time.

Now Larry is 75 years old, typed in all caps, and didn’t write a lot of detail in his messages, so over subsequent weeks, I gathered clues about who Larry was and what his significance was to me. It came in layers, and each layer made me rethink the previous understanding I’d had of what he’d said and who he was.

First impression: Larry was one of my mom’s boyfriends in 1957-58, which would have made her 16-17 years old. He’d posted her senior picture from high school on his Ancestry page, so I assumed that confirmed that they’d been together in that time period. How sweet, I thought, and dismissed any chance that he would have much I wanted to hear.

Next layer of the archeological dig:  Larry sent me a note that he felt a shock after seeing the color of my hair. It’s a lot like his, he said. At this point, I started to feel mildly confused: who is this man, and why was he shocked about our similar hair color? They dated 10 years before my conception and birth. I let this comment slide.

Next layer, a few days later: he messaged me on FB to say I look more like his child than his own children do. Now at this point, Larry finally got my full attention. I had to ask: are you saying you think we might be related? I was under the impression that all of this information was dawning on him as slowly as it was dawning on me, or just a step ahead of me.

It took another day or two for him to respond: he’s looked at his records, and he was in Pennsylvania on business trips 1965-67, not ’57-58.

With that message showing on my computer screen, I stopped and felt my reality shift beneath me. Here’s someone who could possibly be my father. That would mean my mom’s story was either the best she knew; a mistake on her part; or a lie to keep me off the track. And any of these possibilities could be true. If she had intentionally avoided Larry and a future relationship with him, it might be his best recommendation yet: my mom married a couple of awful men, and she often missed recognizing the good people and subsequently alienated them because of her paranoia.

At this point my husband, John, and I talked about the situation. John was the first to note that no one puts a picture of an ex-girlfriend on his family tree unless he thinks they may have created progeny together. It began to dawn on me in little snippets of phone conversation and emails and Facebook messages: Larry had known about me because he visited my mom once after I was born; my mom never told him I was his, and he also didn’t pursue the line of questioning about who the father of the baby in the next room might be; and shortly after I was born, my mom moved away. By the time I was five years old, she had been married twice and changed her last name one more time for good measure. In the age of the internet, my mom would have been a challenge to locate; before the internet, finding her would have been nearly impossible.

As our conversations continued, it turned out, Larry tried to find my mom over the years. He mentioned that he searched for her and even spoke to my grandmother in the mid-‘80s. Now I realized that not only did he know Mimi had had a baby and that he’d wondered about his role in that, but that he’d also tried to find her. My story about my father shifted with each revelation he made. He was in love with my mom. He wanted to marry her. He regretted not asking her to marry him, not asking her whether he was the father. He tried to find her. He posted a picture of her on Ancestry.com, hoping.

All of this blew my assumptions about my father and about my mother’s story out of the water. A powerful current of emotion ran beneath each unfolding bit of story.  All day, I thought about this new person in my life, looked at his pictures and noted we have a strong resemblance, pondered my mother’s story and motivations for telling it and the implications for the future with this new person. I ended every day exhausted.

We ordered an home DNA test through Ancestry.com. It would tell us if we were related, and it would also show us any DNA matches to other people who might be relatives.

“I hope you’re my daughter,” he told me the very first time we spoke on the phone, the point at which we I had to pause and look at the phone. I didn’t know him yet to know if I wanted him to be my father, but I was moved that someone in the world had actually had that thought. And at this point in the conversation, I thought he was someone who was just as surprised as I was to consider we might be connected. It looks pretty obvious from this vantage, but we were still turning over the puzzle pieces on the table, let alone putting them together. To his credit, Larry was probably moving cautiously about what he revealed. He didn’t know if I was his, and he didn’t know how I would receive his speculation that he might be my father. When he looked at my pictures, he was looking to see if I was his child. With the unfolding revelations, I began to see what had been working in his mind for all these years.

I sent a quarter teaspoon of saliva to the lab for testing. My stomach flipped and flopped constantly over the next several days: was Larry my father? If he was my father, I realized, I would probably have different questions for him than if he were just my mom’s old boyfriend. Larry’s wife supported him and was excited for him; John was both excited for me and protective. Both John’s and my dreams were filled with father images and hopeful anxiety about the results. We spoke in code around Isaac: we’d found someone who might be a relative, we told him. Telling him I’d found my father would wait until we knew for sure.

Larry and I messaged one day, and he said, “I’ll claim you regardless, if that’s what you want.”

I hate to admit I was so slow on the uptake, but I was still putting the pieces together. I still hadn’t figured out that this man knew I’d been born and wondered from that moment if I was his; that he’d been waiting for 45 years to find out; that he’d wondered for nearly half a century if Mimi’s little girl was his. I still hadn’t figured out that Larry had been, on a level that is deeper than DNA, the father who’d always wanted me. He was the father who regretted not being there with my mother and with me. I have “adopted” friends as family before: “Gramma Joan”; my “sisters” Sarah and Laura Lee; Kathy “Mom,” my foster mother. I, of all people, should know that family of the heart is profoundly family, and a DNA test cannot reveal who those people should be.

I cried as my heart let it in: I have a father who loves me, regardless of the DNA test. I told him that I would be honored. I wrote back saying that I would take him as my father, if he wanted to take me as his daughter, regardless of what the test results showed. “I was already there,” he said. Yes, he was. He’d been “there” for 45 years, and I just needed a couple of weeks to wrap my head around who he was, what I meant to him, and what he meant to me. It took a little while for the story in my head to surrender to the story that was dawning in my heart.

We had several more weeks to wait for the test results to come in. But my anxiety about the test passed. It didn’t matter: I’d found my father.

My mom died in 2006, shortly after Isaac was born. I’d become an orphan at that point. I was both freed from the complications of loving a schizophrenic parent, but I was also more adrift without her.

I’ve now been given a rare gift: the opportunity to be a daughter again. The first time around, I took it for granted. It wasn’t until my mother drew her last breath that I realized it: every day of my life, my mother had breathed, and with each breath, she loved me.  There was an eerie silence in that absence of the familiar sound of her breath and her always-present attention on my life, the attention only a parent can give.

And now there’s someone else, for whatever period of time we have together, whose love has followed me from a distance and cared for me, and I have the honor of being a daughter to that someone now.

We spoke on the phone yesterday, and at the end of the call, he said, “Love you.”

Love you, too, Dad. I’m so grateful to have found you, and I’m so grateful that you were looking, too.

 When I first wrote this, the DNA results were not yet in. They have come in. I’m choosing for now not to reveal the results because they aren’t relevant one way or the other to whether Larry is family. Happy Birthday, Dad! Love you.

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What do healed wounds look like?

I didn’t anticipate this part of parenting:  abuses I suffered as a child re-emerge as my own child passes through the ages that correspond with my age at the time of those abuses.

When he was three months old, I recalled my aunt’s story: she’d been visiting my mom, and my mom slapped me across the face for spitting out my food. That story made me sad before my son turned three months old. When he reached that age, however, I was newly horrified: I could not imagine slapping my three-month-old child. His body was fragile, and his spitting out of anything solid was merely a reflex (and I would not have given him food at that age because he was too young). I saw the abuse through new eyes.

Now that he is almost eight, I have a new wave of memories emerging. My mother was hospitalized for mental illness three times when I was around Isaac’s age. The first two times were for days and weeks, respectively. The last time lasted over two months. Each time she “disappeared,” my heart broke. I cried for her every night. I missed her, my pets, my toys, my home, my routine. I see my son now and can’t imagine what that kind of loss would do to him. He is learning to use a “Rainbow Loom,” where he makes bracelets for himself and his friends. I remember learning to crochet in the children’s home where I lived during my mother’s longest hospitalization. It is a poignant parallel.

What does healing look like? I used to think that healing meant I would no longer feel emotionally charged about events of the past. However, I’m discovering that this is not the case, at least not yet. This stage of healing looks like this:  I am fully present (perhaps for the first time) to the pain that was too overwhelming to experience 35 or 40 years ago. Then, I had to shut it down. Now, I can feel it. I can look the pain straight in the eyes and open my heart to it. I open my heart to that little girl who was so profoundly abandoned and abused. I hold her in my arms and let her cry it out. It was painful stuff, and she deserves a witness now who can validate her experience. Yes, Honey, that is awful stuff. I’m so sorry you had to feel such pain. I am with you now.

As I do this for myself, my heart is more open to my son. Because I don’t shut down my own pain, I don’t have to shut his down, either. In learning to be a present and compassionate witness to my own experience, I can be a present and compassionate witness to his. This is what healing looks like for me. 

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