The Taming of Guilt

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I’m sitting here in the hospital surgical waiting area, and I thought, maybe today is the day I start writing in my blog again. I had taken over a year off. The last time I wrote, my mother was hospitalized with a grim prognosis and my father-in-law died unexpectedly four days later. For the next year and a half I turned deeply inward, not writing, not really getting on social media, not reaching out to friends. I began to feel as though I was losing my friends, and yet I didn’t know how to explain to others that I just didn’t have energy…no energy to clean the house in order to have people over, no energy to be a good conversationalist…no energy to be ‘normal.’

While it was a quiet year, it was also an intensely productive one: we changed schools for our son, moved to a new town, moved my mother (who’d since stabilized miraculously) in with us for at least part of the year. I also started acupuncture treatments, meditation, and exercise, and I no longer wake up in the mornings with my heart racing in fear of what may or may not come. I am present for Fred, I am remembering to be a thankful wife, I am making efforts to reach out to the amazing women in my life. I am, finally and slowly, learning to be compassionate toward myself.

I’m in the hospital right now because my mother’s in surgery – not a life threatening one, but a serious one in which the best outcome will still affect her quality of life. We experienced an unexpected turn yesterday and I had spent a good part of the day fighting a guilt so strong that I decided I couldn’t allow it to win.

I am realizing that the guilt of ‘what-if’ is inevitable when a loved one suffers a calamity. What if I had questioned the doctors earlier? What if I had been more aggressive about pushing her appointments up sooner? Maybe I could have prevented things from getting to this stage. I suppose that the guilt is especially strong because I’m a daughter, and because I’m the first born and the one who always took ownership of my immigrant parents’ issues. Somehow I believed that I had the power to change the course of things, and I had failed. Worst of all is the knowledge that I had not done everything in my power…if this had been my child, I would have fought harder.

The new compassion comes in my understanding that the guilt is pointless. I’m getting better at asking this: what value does this thought, does this word add? The guilt really adds nothing, except the satisfaction that I am punishing myself. This must come from childhood, from having been taught to feel shame for having done something bad or being something bad. “There, I have beaten myself up” – there is satisfaction in that, like a metaphorical spanking or self-imposed time-out or an actual beating. There is satisfaction, but there is no good in it.

And to be a functioning daughter, mother, and wife I need to preserve whatever good I feel about myself. I am realizing that.

I started having this imaginary conversation with myself yesterday, while thinking about my guilt. In this conversation, I am the one getting the operation, and my little Fred is the one feeling guilty, for not having done enough. This is how it goes:

Fred:   (Crying)

Me:     What’s wrong? Why are you crying?

Fred:   I should have done more. I should have tried to get your surgery moved up. Then it wouldn’t have gotten to this point.

Me:     But you did move up the appointment once, and the doctor is booked! People come from out of state to see her, everyone needs her, everyone has probably waited months for her.

Fred: I just feel that if I had done more this wouldn’t have happened. I feel like I am responsible.

Me:   Fred, the ONE thing I do NOT want you to feel, even for a second, is guilt! How can you be responsible for what happens to my body, for what happens to me? Do you know how full my heart is, knowing how much you HAVE done for me? Can I ask you to instead think about everything you have done for me, instead of all the things you were powerless to have made happen?

Something like that. And it is amazing how things turn around once you treat yourself the way you would treat your child. The love is instantly palpable, even when it is coming from yourself. And you start seeing yourself the way others might be seeing you, as the good and decent woman that you are. That I am.

 

Photo courtesy of http://www.viralnovelty.net

 

 

 

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When Your Partner Isn’t a Reader (or Athlete, etc.), and You Are

Call me irrational, but I used to get nervous about the idea of dating athletic or active men. My big fear was being expected to go hiking or camping or rollerblading, and thus having all my non-athletic, non-rugged characteristics exposed and losing the guy’s interest.

So, of course, with my luck, I somehow ended up not only dating but marrying an athletic man. He’ll stop short of jumping out of an airplane, but he has done and enjoyed most of the sports that I can think of: soccer, basketball, baseball, swimming, surfing, scuba diving, skiing, golf, and on and on. But our relationship went off without a hitch in this department because he never pressured or expected me to do sports, and always met me where I was interest-wise. On our days off together (pre-parenthood) we ate out, shopped, took walks, watched DVDs and talked. Then, because I like to dig in places where I really don’t need to, I learned that his ex-wife was an athlete like him, and concluded that in this past life Max actually had a partner in the activity he loves most. Of course, a shared interest clearly wasn’t enough to have kept them together, but I’ve often wondered about the significance of being able to share a passion together.

I’d like to consider myself a reader, even though there have been huge gaps in my life when I wasn’t reading much. But books have been a significant part of my life for the last couple of years now. Because it’s important to me, this has inevitably spilled over into our family life.

Max does read. When we were dating, I was surprised to learn that he had read Wild Swans, a biography of three generations of women in China. He had a bookcase of books at home, and he enjoyed browsing in bookstores. Now that we live in the U.S., it is harder for him to access books in his native tongue. He used to stock up whenever he visited Japan but recently became reluctant to lug books back. There are weird issues with the Kindle in terms of accessing and purchasing books outside the U.S. Max does read books in English, but it’s a slower process for him, which means that overall he ends up reading less.

I think he finds all of this a slight disappointment, but he is surviving without undue pain. He is not a book fanatic the way I am. His preferred way of going about his day is still through physical action. He enjoys working and working out. He likes to lose himself in a video game or an episode of “24” to combat stress. The library is not his “happy place.”

We also have very different tastes in reading. Whereas I read a lot of literary fiction, he tends to gravitate toward books about business and spirituality.

And for me, that’s okay. I’m realizing that, as I’m writing this, it is okay because he’s never questioned or judged my interest in reading or my obsession with book hoarding. I’ve snuck around with my book purchases the way some women might with new shoes, but he has caught me and never complained. In fact, he will drive me to book sales because of my anxieties with driving. He agrees it would be nice to have an at-home library and recently built me a bookcase. And he doesn’t seem to mind listening to me talk about what I’m reading. I can still share my reading life with him and not feel shut out (or shut in?) in this area. In other words, having a somewhat separate hobby has not made me feel disconnected. I wonder how I would feel if he actually disapproved or judged my interests in reading and/or buying books, which has happened with friends.

In the meantime, I’ve learned to get out of my head – and my chair – more often. Living so closely with two active boys has meant that I’ve had to allow myself to be changed by them. They’ve taught me that not everything in life needs to be thought out thoroughly or picked apart. They’ve shown me that meaning can also be found outside the written word. Since being a part of this family I’ve taken up running, hiking and swimming. Exercising the body and mind. Our seemingly opposite interests have been a gift.

Mary Cassatt’s “Young Woman Reading”

I am curious to know: Does your partner read, and if s/he doesn’t, does that bother you? What hobbies do you share or not share? 

What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

In 2000, a young British woman named Lucie Blackman working as a club hostess in Tokyo disappeared after taking a ride with one of her wealthy customers. Her body was found dismembered seven months later in a seaside cave.

People Who Eat Darkness by award-winning British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of Lucie, her family, her disappearance and the subsequent investigation and legal proceedings of the case. It is also the story of her abductor and killer, Joji Obara.

Before traveling to Japan, Lucie had worked as a British Airways flight attendant until she realized that the grueling schedules and isolation (she was never in any place long enough to make real connections) were too much. She subsequently resigned and, knee deep in debt, accompanied her best friend to Tokyo where they planned to work at a hostess club, an establishment on the fringes of the sex industry and that caters to wealthy Japanese businessmen willing to pay over $100 an hour for female company. The clubs paid handsomely, or at least compared to English teaching, and Lucie believed this to be the quickest way to get back on her feet financially.

The hostess clubs are an interesting phenomenon. There is, supposedly, no sex involved. Attractive women, often foreign, are paid to basically stroke men’s egos. The hostesses exist to pour drinks, light cigarettes, listen to the men and laugh at their jokes. The most difficult part of the job seemed to be boredom. But the women did have pressure; to keep their jobs, they needed to establish their own clientele of regulars, whom the clubs relied on for steady business.

Perhaps Joji Obara was a prospective regular. One evening, the friend receives a cell phone call from a seemingly delighted Lucie. Lucie says that Joji will soon be giving her her own cell phone, and that they are now driving to the seaside. That was the last time her friend ever heard from her.

The book details the long months following Lucie’s disappearance: the role her parents and siblings played in drumming up media and other support to keep the story and investigation alive (Lucie’s father went as far as reaching out to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair); the sometimes infuriating and slow responses of the Japanese police; the way Lucie’s family’s dysfunction played out in each person’s grieving process; and, finally, the identification and discovery of the abductor and murderer, and the final attempts to bring him to justice.

We learn, upon his arrest, that Joji Obara was a serial rapist. In his apartment were detailed records and videotapes of the women he had lured and drugged for thirty years. He used a different name with each woman. Another club hostess had gotten sick and died some years back after spending a night with Obara and complaints had been made, but the police had not followed up.

In the author’s profile of Obara, we learn that he is an ethnic Korean whose parents had immigrated to a poor Korean ghetto in Japan. Though Parry does not excuse Obara’s crimes (most people with difficult pasts do not become rapists and murderers), he paints an illuminating picture of a troubled man with a troubled past, a personal history that became a window into the ugly but often hidden and unspoken realities of Japan’s ethnic minority communities and the prejudices they face.

Parry, too, is honest in his portrayal of Lucie’s family. Her father Tim, who flew to Japan frequently and never tired in his efforts to fight for his daughter, is a confusing portrait of loyalty and self-interest. Where had he been when Lucie was growing up, when he became involved in multiple affairs before finally leaving his family? Why had he accepted a substantial amount of money from the killer during the court trial, in exchange for providing some verbal support? Lucie’s mother and father, who were icy at best before Lucie’s disappearance, became even more hostile after her death. Without judgment, Parry does an admirable job of laying bare the flaws of a family trying to survive a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.

Though some parts felt repetitive, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it simultaneously intimate and chilling. I was fascinated to read about a part of Japanese society that I’d never entered. It is an eye-opening look into Japan’s mizu-shobai, or “water trade,” a euphemism for its diverse night entertainment or sex industry; its criminal investigation/justice procedures (one of which is a heavy reliance on criminal confession and inevitability of cooperation and remorse); and its Korean community and history. On a personal level, the book is an intimate account of a flawed but real family and how they contributed to both creating Lucie and remembering her in her death. And, finally, it is a disturbing story of a human being gone wrong. I remain haunted to this day, by the images of Joji Obara.

Small Moments, Huge Joys

It seems that over the last year or two I’ve become more sensitive to stimuli around me. Or, maybe, I’m finally slowing down enough in life to take in the sights, sounds, smells and touches that I once barely noticed. And though life definitely feels slower than it did in the years I was building my career and taking care of a very young child, the stress and anxiety haven’t necessarily gone down proportionately. Raising a tween, I’m finding, is challenging me on new and more anxious levels. Our parents are getting older, and more frail. College and retirement are no longer so far that they’re out of sight. I’m being pushed into another life stage just when I was starting to get comfortable in my previous one.

I take the moments of tranquility whenever I can, and I’m grateful that I’m paying attention when they come to me. Sometimes I’ll seek these respites, like driving to a café or paying for a yoga class, but I love it when they come to me, out of the blue.

The following are some of the very ordinary sights and sounds in my days that lift me no matter how down I might feel:

1) The sound of our dishwasher

Hearing our dishwasher swish and shush is the first time in many years that I’ve noticed how comforted I can be by a sound. Since we don’t have a big family I do a lot of things by hand, from washing dishes to hanging laundry, but occasionally I’ll go all out and load the dishwasher. Pressing the “on” button is like hitting “launch” on my internal rocket to escape. Machine on, kitchen lights off, Cecilia out. The shooshing tells me that I’ve got the evening off.

2) The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice

I’ve recently begun hearing the muffled sounds of Dr. Phil’s voice from the television downstairs. As some of you know, Max and I own our own business and we work from home. I think to many friends we look like we’re never working, because we volunteer at Fred’s school or do Costco runs in the middle of the day. The truth is that the pressure of sustaining your own business is nerve-wracking, and while I will try to take one day off a week, Max is working whenever he can squeeze it in.

Even when he is watching Dr. Phil.

Max has only been in America for five years, and Dr. Phil is a fascinating piece of americana to him. I roll my eyes every time he tries to update me on the latest story of parent turning against child (or vice versa), but the truth is that I like it. The sound of Dr. Phil’s voice means that we’re in our off-season at work, Max is relaxed, and work is rolling along.

3) A memory of Fred being scolded 

Fred is part of his school’s taekwondo team, and he participates in a number of competitions and performances every year. Most recently he has been training intensively for the team’s second out-of-state competition. As a martial art, taekwondo is an exacting sport, and this is the one area in his life where he does not get a trophy just for showing up. During training his coach does not tolerate any goofing around or any slack in discipline.

Then one day, as all the members had to run to their respective positions, the coach bellowed, “FRED! WHAT IS THIS??!!” and proceeded to imitate Fred’s manner of “running,” a move that was more like a joyful hopping and skipping through a spring meadow. We all laughed in affection, because that’s pretty much Fred in a nutshell.

Onlyou_F

Fred marching in a martial arts parade at age 7

After all, this is the same kid who earlier this week replaced his white board to-do list of homework and chores with this:

Onlyou_bepic

 

How I birthed such a positive and happy child will remain a mystery for my lifetime. But anyway, he’s divided the white board into three sections, one for him, one for me, and one for Max. “Have you been epic today, Mommy? Did you feel epic?” He kneels before the 4 foot white board waiting for my answer. I hem and haw and “pretty good” is the best I can come up with. Epic, though, is now my goal. 😉

What ordinary moments make you feel extraordinary?

On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.

A Short Literary Trip in Boston

I was back briefly in my hometown of Boston a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to call up any friends except for my 76-year-old second grade teacher. We had a small family reunion and celebrated my mother’s birthday together for the first time in maybe twenty years. Next time I hope to be in town longer to see more friends!

One thing I did manage to squeeze in, between all the “family bonding” that my mother wanted to do, were several trips to bookstores. All those years I had lived in Boston I took for granted a historical literary world that was my backyard.

My first stop was Brattle Bookshop in downtown Boston, across the street from Boston Common, the oldest public park in the United States and the camping ground for British soldiers in preparation for the American Revolutionary War. Brattle Bookshop has been around since 1825 and is one of the largest and oldest antiquarian bookshops in the country. My most memorable experience with the store was finding a copy of the biography Gable and Lombard during my Gone with the Wind obsession as a teen. Pre-internet, this was a huge feat, given that the book was out of print and I had to search two years for it.

I like the idea of their outdoor book racks, which you can see in the photo below. There are three floors of books inside the store including a floor of rare and antiquarian books. And outside they sell a diverse mix of bargain books, all priced from $1 to $5. There were a number of old editions (pre-1900 and turn of the century) as well. The only problem was that it was pretty cold that day – in the 30s/40s F – but fortunately I finished browsing as soon as I was coming near the end of my comfort zone standing in the cold for so long.

BrattleBS

Brattle Bookshop Mural

“20 Authors Upon the Wall Mural,” by local artist Jeffrey Hull

My next stop was Harvard Square. Whatever your feelings on Harvard the institution and the elitism it represents, you can’t deny the eclecticism and vibrancy of the town that was birthed by the country’s oldest university. I’d worked in the area a number of years and remember walking past the sets of The Firm (Tom Cruise movie, for those who weren’t around then) and With Honors (a forgettable Joe Pesci film) during lunch breaks. It was pretty neat, too, to see academic greats like Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Howard Gardner in and around town.

And so that brings me to this gem of an indy bookstore, Harvard Book Store, which has been around for over 80 years. The store is open until 11 pm every day except Sunday (when it closes at 10), and every time I’m in there the place is bustling. They also have author events virtually every day of the week (and sometimes multiple times a day).

This is me, just window shopping this time.

This is me, just window shopping this time.

The Harvard Coop, founded by Harvard students in 1882,  was also fun and lively with its crowded café and four floors of books connected by a winding staircase.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte's Villette here, that I haven't been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

I found a beautiful copy of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette here that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else, including amazon.

When I got tired of book browsing we took a break at Café Algiers on historical Brattle Street (the street where George Washington established his first headquarters during the Revolutionary War). Café Algiers is a tranquil, grand (in my eyes), and bookish Middle Eastern coffee shop and eatery and one of the few businesses in the Square that have remained over the decades.

cafeA

CafeAbookcase

The last time I was here was to meet an old classmate. He had kissed me at our reunion, igniting all kinds of dreamy hopes in me. After avoiding me for a couple of weeks, he offered to meet at the café, where he told me painfully and uncomfortably that he was still in a relationship. The tea tasted bitter that day, but this time I was with my husband, son, and brother, and I enjoyed the best (the only) mint chocolate coffee I’ve ever had.

coffee

And then there were these shelves, the ones I spend the most time looking at whenever I am home.

Bookshelfhome

This was my bookshelf growing up, pretty much unchanged since I left home for college a whole lifetime ago. The stuffed animals are still on the very top shelf, now protected and wrapped in plastic thanks to my mom. My photos are still there, as are my trinkets from different trips, events, and friendships, costume jewelry, extra buttons that came with clothes I’ve long stopped wearing, and, of course, books. The shelves are a bit messy now as I’ve been raiding them over the years, either selling/donating or taking some books back with me. Since I left home I’ve lived in nine apartments/houses in five cities on two continents. The more my life has evolved the more meaning this bookcase holds for me, as an anchor in time, a tether to the self and life that exist now only in memories.

 

Have you been to Boston? What are your favorite literary cities? What are your favorite literary places where you live?