Draw the Arthur Murray Patterns
May 19, 2008

They say (you know, the infamous "they" who do and say everything) that things come to you when you're ready for them. I've often found that axiom particularly annoying and not altogether true. I was certain I was ready to read Joyce's Ulysses the instant my eighth grade English teacher said it was not to be read by anyone under about 20-25, because you had to be older to understand it. I was livid when I discovered that our junior high library did not, in fact, have a copy. Somehow, to this day, I still haven't actually read that book. I think now, perhaps, I'm afraid that I will not understand it - at 13 I was positive I would.

The first research project I did as a junior in high school, liked to kill me. I wanted absolutely all of the information about my issue - did Atlantis ever really exist or not - on the table before me. How could I possibly write the definitive answer of Atlantis without having EVERYTHING in front of me? Thank goodness for Mrs. Critzer's schedules. She knew, through years of teaching privileged suburban honours students, that many of us earnestly tried to be thorough, to do it all. She declared a date whereafter we were to turn in our notecards and STOP research. She made a little mark on each notecard - lord, she must have been blindly making marks late into the night to get through all of our research - and handed them back to us a day or two later. Now, she said, we absolutely had to begin writing if we had not already. She'd marked our notecards. No more research allowed. Later, I tried to help my students learn the same lesson when I taught writing.

You make do with what you have, you see. You never have all the facts or stories or theories.

It was the same when I tried to work through childhood issues - I wanted everything laid out on the table for me to pick through, to rail over, to mourn over, and to laugh over.

Would you like to learn to dance?
Well I can show you how
Gotta book here, all you need to know
We can draw the Arthur Murray patterns right here on the floor.
All you have to do is follow.
And then well dance around the room a while
You can lead now if you want to, I don't mind.
Nothing I wouldn't do to see your smile
Go dancin cross your face in perfect time
Go dancin cross your face in perfect time.

My mother and I were both very alike and very, very different and it caused us no end of sorrows whilst I grew up. She wanted a Leave It To Beaver life ... and she got something closer to Married ... With Children, I think, at least in the disparity between the two shows, if not the reality.

The husband she left secretarial college for turned out to be a drunk who was addicted to "nighttime activities." She was a devout Catholic who'd seriously contemplated the contemplative life. Several years after their wedding - and much trying - I finally came along. The "perfect" baby girl. She was terrified and yet determined to do everything exactly right.

Naturally, I was most emphatically NOT the perfect baby girl. By all accounts, I was a relatively quiet and happy toddler - but I had a distinct personality, stubbornness, independence and penchant for climbing everything. I was in a hurry to grow up and do it myself.

My mother thought she was getting a docile child she could dress in fancy dresses, teach to sew and cook (even though Mom was not particularly fond of those things herself).

I was interested in airplanes (particularly F-16s and F-15s and the Air Force Thunderbird team), in toy cars, in being outdoors and getting dirty.

Mom and I were really, really not ready for each other.

There were fights over hair, over clothes, over toys, over activities - neither of us understanding the other at all. She did not understand why I was so stubborn - I did not understand how she could say "you can be anything you want to be" except for all the things I loved most. It was definitely a dilemma of the 70s.

In addition to that, my mom fought depression and battered wife syndrome - not that I ever saw any physical battery, nor bruises or sunglasses later. But I heard how he belittled her and undermined her confidence. You could sense the threat of physical violence in his tightly coiled muscles some days, barely under the surface, like a gator ready to strike - that sudden, violent surge out of the water and at the prey perhaps more terrifying than the actual bite.

It must have seemed to her like nothing in her life could go right.

Her second daughter, however, was more pliable - the girly-girl she'd wanted to begin with. They bonded over the shared things that many mothers and daughters bonded over - and rightly so. They had shared interests and commonalities that I did not share with them. But it also meant that I became an outsider without any of us really realizing it or understanding what had happened.

My mom and my sister shared a love for music and singing - I also shared that, but given the extent of my allergies, my sinuses were always so clogged that I often couldn't hear myself accurately, which meant I was off-key without knowing it. None of us thought that through, and eventually, I stopped sharing my music with them - I couldn't take being made fun of for something I couldn't hear, couldn't help.

Would you like to learn to sing?
Well I can teach you how
Here's an old tune thats good for a start
I can sing all the high parts if I really try
And you can play along on your guitar
And well sing together for a little while
Let the harmonies go ringin in your mind
And we sing so much better when we sing with a smile
All the notes come out so sweet and high.
All the notes come out so sweet and high.

My mom and my sister shared a love of clothes (although I'm not sure anyone can spend as much time looking at clothes as my mother). I could, for the most part, care less. Jeans and a t-shirt and I'm good to go. I want my clothes to fit. I want them clean. I want them presentable. But I don't really care what I wear.

We all shared a love of reading, but I left Phyllis Whitney and Nancy Drew behind for the Hardy Boys and then biographies and manuals on electronics ... and finally science fiction and sometimes horror. My mother was puzzled and tried to interest me in beloved classics - Roller Skates, a 1937 Newbery winner. That was only the second book in my life up to that point that I could not force myself to finish. (The first was either Emil and the Detectives which I found terribly yawn-o-riffic or Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.)

We were not always polar opposites, but there was, nonetheless, a sense of puzzlement, frustration and sadness that shaped our relationship.

But the real mystery to me was always: why had she not divorced Dad?

The answer was that she was simply not ready. It was a terrifying thought to be on your own with no college degree, no "real" skills, no self-confidence, and know that you had to raise two girls on your own. She had grown quite used to the middle-class lifestyle and even while she abhorred "keeping up with the Joneses" (one of the worst sins in her personal catechism), she enjoyed the amenities she allowed herself.

It wasn't until she knew I was leaving that she finally had what she needed to act as well. She'd been building herself up for this for several years prior and while she didn't think she was ready - she was ready.

And that only solidified my bitterness. What can I say? I was 19 and while I didn't think I knew it all, I thought that I did understand our family.

It has taken me another 20 years now to realize that I only now understand something of the depth and scope of our family ...

... but you work with what you have.

At 19, I simply wanted my mother to take some responsibility for her actions. I wanted to hear her admit - and mean it - that she had made mistakes. I wanted to hear her say she was sorry for some of the stupid stuff - for telling me we didn't have the money for me to go on a school trip to Washington, D.C. For telling me that taking Band class was too expensive and we couldn't afford it. The bald-faced lies. I wanted her to own up to those.

At 19, did I think she had ruined my life? No. I was not that arrogant. In my early-to-mid 20s, I wrote Mom a letter, telling her that I was tired of playing the games we'd always played, of dancing around truths. With the bluntness of youth, I attempted to get her to understand that her actions had had a profound effect on me.

It was arrogant of me to think she had not realized that. And yet, she'd never given me any indication that she had. How was I supposed to know? You write your papers based on the research you have at the time.

Of course, she over-reacted. I was blaming everything that was wrong or bad in my life on her. I thought she was evil, a Mommy Dearest.

Faced with her self-flagellating tirade that flogged me as much as it did her, I stared at the words I'd written and tried to figure out how I could have screwed them up so badly that she would think these things that I had not said, had not meant.

You see, she wasn't ready to hear those things. Sometimes we do receive things before we are ready for them.

We stammered along for years, trying to get the other one to understand our point of view - instead of trying to open ourselves up to the other person's point of view.

It's been a steep learning curve for both of us. Took my not telling her things in an immediate fashion for her to realize how far apart we'd traveled. (Apparently if you get put in the hospital with some unknown something the day before Thanksgiving and your mom lives 1000 miles away, you're supposed to call her instantly and "ruin" the Thanksgiving weekend with worry over the unknown instead of waiting until you get out of the hospital Monday and finally have a diagnosis. Apparently mothers don't like that. Who knew?) But now she knows she cannot control my every move and if she tries too hard to continue controlling me, I could simply ... fade away.

Would you like to learn to love?
Well, thats something else again
I can show you how to sing and how to dance
I have no keys to open your heart
And no way I can make you take the chance.
And so well dance around the room again
And well sing a tune or two to pass the time
And smile a while and by the time the dance is through
There might be some love for us to find
There might be some love for you and me to find.

For me, it's taken a long time to understand the battered wife syndrome and apply that to my mother. To really begin to understand the paralyzing fear and lack of confidence which caused her to stay in an intolerable situation when she should have left.

They say (you know, the infamous "they" who do and say everything) that things come to you when you're ready for them.

This past week, our church prepared for an incredibly busy week. We had a rummage and plant sale scheduled for Saturday. A wedding rehearsal Friday and the wedding itself Saturday. A huge congregational meeting Sunday and a big mission trip meeting as well. Our rummage sales take us a full week to get ready - get all the rummage sorted, out in the appropriate areas and priced. There's electronics (generally that's my room) to test and verify prices on. The rummage spans all four meeting rooms at one end of the church, the circular "hallway" which connects to all of those classrooms, the long, narrow hallway which connects that area to the sanctuary, the sanctuary itself gets filled with clothes AND the large item stuff outside. It's a BIG deal. We had to get that all prepped, then do a rehearsal for a wedding with all those tables of clothes in the sanctuary - which, of course, freaked out the poor couple despite our protestations that the church would be all nice and neat and ready for them by their 4 p.m. wedding. (And it was. Was a beautiful wedding, too!)

As I stood around waiting for the wedding party to show up for rehearsal on Friday, one of the older women saw me staring idly at the rows of books. Her eyes lit on a book and seized it. Thrust it at me. Little Altars Everywhere by Rebecca Wells. A book I'd been meaning to read for a few years now. Sheila couldn't recommend it enough. And there was a fire in her eyes - she'd made an important connection here and she knew it. Somehow, she knew that I needed this book and was ready for it now. I doled out my quarter for the paperback. A little while later I saw the sequel: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. And I doled out another quarter. The movie was excellent and I'd meant to read both books years ago.

But I found them this past weekend and finally bought them ... because I was ready for them. Finally ready for them. The movie is largely about the second book (from which the movie took its name), but it's a movie in some ways primarily about the Ya-Yas themselves and their friendship and support for each other. It's also a book about the relationship between a mother and daughter - a relationship spanning love, abuse and downright craziness. But it's also a book about reconciliation and not trying so damn hard to get the other person to understand you and just let each other be. Sometimes trying to get the other person to understand you just messes everything up ...

... there's a deeper understanding that comes with letting go of it all and just being.

It doesn't mean that you don't wanna wring the other person's neck when they go back to an old pattern of dancing, that self-indulgent habitual ritual movement across time and events ...

... it doesn't mean you take the same crap you took as a kid ...

... but you don't try to control the patterns any more. Stand back and let the other person dance. When it gets too frenetic, point out that there are alternatives, but quietly, gently, reminding them that it's really their idea.

And be ready for them. Because they'll find it - whatever it is - when they're ready.



(lyrics are Peter Paul & Mary's "Would You Like to Learn to Dance")

Posted by Red Monkey at May 19, 2008 12:03 PM | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Nola said:

Wow. So much of your past rings of mine. You work with the data you have. So simple yet so deep. And so true. The good thing is, life is but a journey and there is still road ahead of gleam more clarity.

Powerful post.

May 19, 2008 11:07 PM


Dawn said:

An illuminating entry, and it sounds like you're at a good place in the relationship. This was my favorite bit:

"But it's also a book about reconciliation and not trying so damn hard to get the other person to understand you and just let each other be. Sometimes trying to get the other person to understand you just messes everything up ...

... there's a deeper understanding that comes with letting go of it all and just being."

So true...that's the point I've reached with my dad as well.

May 23, 2008 4:47 PM
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