27 May 2009

Mind-body resonance: The opposite of cognitive dissonance

It occurs to me that I don't know whose idea it was to live in the town where we landed after the blitz of losing my sister 40 years ago, just before I turned six. We had left California within days of her death for Colorado, to settle in the liberal enclave of Boulder, which would be better than the cowtown that Denver was in the 1970s since the Beats had all hightailed it for the coasts. Now I see the wisdom of it. I see it could be in part my father's way of handing down something he was himself given even though the values he espouses have always tended to involve total freedom from the strictures of money and status. His gift, the gift of growing up in a safe and secure enclave, a place where I could - and did - sink roots, came at no personal cost to him, an added benefit in his eyes I am certain.

But growing up in idyllic places didn't necessarily shelter me from the evils of the world. I lost a sister and a substantial portion of my innocence to the brutality that plagued us from His Favorite Chair throughout my childhood in my laid-back college town. The times I tried to bring my grievances to the perpetrator of this violence in my life, he's pulled a Ronnie Reagan on me and disclaimed any memory of alleged events. He's never seemed particularly contrite or sorry about not knowing how to parent and not trying hard to do it when he had the chance. In recent years he has asked me to paper over all that – what he calls forgive – but I haven't felt the love that would inspire me to forgive. That's what it comes down to. I've felt the obligation conferred by family roles, but I have not felt a deep and unconditional love for who I have been and who I have become, nor for how I have chosen to live my life.

Also, I can't ignore the din of that weird and constant superliminal tallying, his continuous attempt to leverage as much influence as possible so as to claim you on his list of Friends I Drop In On When In Town (FIDIOWITs).

Thing is, you might be surprised at two things about him: the steadfastness of the FIDIOWITs who will see him year in and year out, who will let him sleep in their guest rooms and allow him to commandeer their kitchens to make coffee with great ceremony at various times of the day; you might also raise your eyebrows at the high turnover rate among his FIDIOWITS, as some recognize a certain modus operandi and turn away from its strange fascination.

Many a friend of mine has laughed at me when I yearned for coffee on the sluggish slope of an afternoon, but those times are also when I also recall my father’s rhythms – inevitably accompanied by memories of how he imposed his cycle upon everyone else. On one infamous rafting trip a few years ago, my father stripped to nothing in the middle of camp and proceeded to set a skillet on a stove and roast and hand-grind his coffee beans, then boil water and drip a pot of fresh coffee. I had stopped going rafting with him years earlier, when I'd realized I never again wanted to be dependent on him, especially in a car with him at the wheel. (If you’re going on rafting trips, there are always shuttles involved, and so it’s usually unavoidable to share cars a couple of times during the trip.) It helps that my dear husband is shy of whitewater rafting, too, so I figure we may as well all heed those instincts. With every passing year, I feel less of a need to pursue great risks for exciting payoffs, as I feel more invested in my life and loves. (And my acquisition of mountain biking skills in the past five years has suffered grievously as a result.)

To my sister, my father called my adamant feelings toward him a "grudge." There's a kernel of truth there: No, I haven't let go of everything. Especially not if letting go means pretending nothing ever happened. I haven't let go if letting go means ignoring all the scars, those dense, fibrous barriers that exist between us even now.

I'm still pissed off about some of this ancient history to call him "my birthfather" when I talk about him. One of the reasons for the endurance of this anger is the deprivation his presence imposed on the rest of us when I was growing up. There's a long backstory, but he didn't exactly fulfill the potential his parents saw for him (another detail that makes the Gilmore Girls' story familiar, except theirs is ultimately secure, funny, and loving instead of chaotic, violent, and disturbing). So much of the time he seemed to resent us, his family, for holding him back personally and financially. He has been squirrelly about money as far back as I can remember. My mother had to beg him for enough money for the absolute basics to run the household; he used every ounce of his power to persuade her that she should not have a job of her own.

The sure signs of the prism through which he saw the world were the first accusations he hurled at others from drunken lips, just after that slam of the glass of whiskey onto the table signifying the moment his inner alcoholic stew had roiled to a sputter and fume, spilling over its pot. Deceitful! Secretive! Selfish! he would cry, lashing out while we women and children ran for cover. Hours later it would be like sifting through the wreckage at a battlefield, however subtle the revelations of the landscape. We were always on high alert as we scanned for broken things or worse, bruised or broken people. We didn't know who would come back to the house and the chair in the living room and the dinner table and the whiskey bottle that night or the next, whether that man would be angry or contrite, whether the wounds inflicted this time would be visible damage to a face or emotional lacerations. At any given time the odds always seemed about equal, with one option appearing far worse and more potentially destructive than the other.

And everyone wondered why I was falling asleep in my classes after lunch all through junior high and high school. I was finally relaxing a little by then every day, catching up on my rest before I had to steel myself once again to face home.

I find it odd now that our father now appears to think we as his children are interested in what he has, when to me it's only stuff. He has nothing that I feel belongs to me. It feels a bit ironic, though, in that he always accused his father of attaching strings to every gift, requiring hoops to be jumped or barrels cleared for every contribution he was expected to put up for school or anything else. Now my father seems to be grasping for that power himself, but I see him coming up empty-handed again and again, his hooks still baited.

We might have gone on being tolerant of one another for years but I threw the wrench into the works a couple of years back when I realized I did not trust him not to say or do something offensive around me or my child. I told him that his fundamental disrespect for women was incompatible with how I am raising my kid. Nothing I see or hear about him convinces me that has really changed in this respect (or disrespect, as the case may be). And there's the he's-doing-his-best-with-his-limited-set-of-tools argument, but even that's worn awfully thin. I see how far my mother and I have come in our adult lives, and I know many more who have risen above or gone beyond their family's or even their own expectations for themselves and made themselves better and more loving people.

For me, another evening spent propping up a myth of family closeness indicated by the time spent sitting through another recital of a many-times-told travel anecdote is not enough. I deserve more than that from my friends, and I give more of that to my friends.

Furthermore, I don't see an obligation to take care of him someday no matter what simply by virtue of his being my elder. He spent so much of his life trying to disclaim responsibility for me as quickly as he could that I feel not allowing him close enough to me to treat me in that way again is a justifiable and proportional reaction.

The great news from this side of the familial divide: refusing to engage and "forgive" doesn't mean I need to act any differently from how I truly feel. I continue to feel that honoring my own truths has been among the most healing things I have ever done. I give myself a nice pat on the back for this. Thanks, me.


Anonymous said...

Yay, YOU!!!
love, Robyn

Anonymous said...

Wow! This is beautifully written, extremely powerful, and truly heart-wrenching. It really resonated with me, and made me very grateful that the horribly violent father I knew in my childhood finally got sober and became someone I can respect and love. I SO agree with your dismissal of that tired adage that every parent is the doing the best they can. The two I am currently living with now need to do so much better. Thank you for sharing, Rise! Love, Lisa

Aimee said...
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