I thought about my family history as I stirred my son’s pasta and changed the flow of water first in one direct, then another. A pot of water is a small thing in which to create change. A little heat, a few minutes, stir with a spoon—poof! Change is done. The very molecular structure of the food has been irrevocably altered.
A family history is a harder thing to change.
My grandmother, my aunt and my mother all prostituted to support their families. My family story is replete with abuses: the groping hands of old men on little girls as the men played poker with grandpa; the rape of my five-year-old mother by the neighbor boy; the beatings by my own grandmother of her children. My mother was schizophrenic, paranoid and my sole caregiver until I was thirteen, before I went into foster care. In her parenting, she perpetuated much of the violence she’d experienced as a child.
How does one turn the tide of a family history? I can only say that I have learned to sense and ride the undercurrent that flowed in opposition to that tide.
My whole life, I’ve been moved by BIG ISSUES: homelessness, poverty, universal healthcare, the devastation of warfare, the desolation of our planet by our careless consumerism. I have longed to make a difference in the world. Over and over again, though, it seems that the necessity and priority has been to straighten out my own inner world. Without doing so, I could not function. Depression, compulsion, grief, the seemingly unmanageable logistics of keeping myself in job and home have been all-consuming at times and have eaten up vast amounts of time and energy. When I ignored those signals of my own inner need, tried to plow through them, as I did in my 20s, they just got louder. The waves got bigger until I was choking beneath them.
And so, by my thirties, I’d learned that the Borg were right: resistance is futile. Ironically, it was not the tide of my family history that was irresistible for me. Rather, it was the tide of health and healing that sprung up from within me and created the tension between where I’d come from and where I was going. I seemed to do much better when I simply dove into the stream’s center and explored the healing and stayed away from the more turbulent shallows. I found I was not so much the cook as the noodle.
My childhood had taught me to ignore myself, to care only for the needs of others at the expense of anything I loved or enjoyed. I eventually learned, though, that I can’t actually honor the needs of others and their loves and their pleasure without honoring my own. After all, if every other human being is worthy of a meaningful life…what makes me different? I had to accept that I’m as worthy – or as unworthy – as all the rest. Saying that the needs of others were important while my own were not simply created a dissonance that grew too loud to ignore.
My son has repeatedly been the source of this lesson for me. I look at him, and while I see him, I also see the child I was (and still am inside). I am fascinated by his loves: the beloved ball, his See-n-Say. He clutched his toy radio to his chest this week, saying, “My!” with such delight that it brought tears to my eyes. I know the time will come soon when “my” and “mine” will probably not be the words I love to hear from my son’s lips, but for now, it brings me as much pleasure as it brings him. I’m seeing personality and passions of my little boy bubble to the surface, and it touches me. In seeing him do these things, I realize that the abuses I experienced in my childhood were undeserved — no small realization. In learning to love Isaac’s preferences, I am also learning to value my own.
I thought I had it rough at times in my twenties and early thirties as I struggled to balance my life: the inner healing work, productivity on the job, social life and friendships. Now, I’ve got the added factor of single parenthood to deal with. Paradoxically, the added pressures are teaching me that the happier I am, the more of an overflow of joy I have to share with Isaac. After Isaac spends a couple hours in childcare in the morning, I am ready to scoop him up and return his giggles and hugs with kisses and raspberries in his neck. I have to think that that’s life-giving for both of us, the renewed enthusiasm I have for him when I’ve had some time and nurturing for myself.
In the past, I thought I could change the tide of my own and the world’s BIG ISSUES by sheer force. I now know that is a herculean effort that would have pounded me to bits against the rocks, had I kept that focus. Like my own inner healing work, there is a flow of healing that arises from within groups of people and in the planet itself that must be listened to, surrendered to and followed, rather than controlled and forced by mandate.
This is the kind of thing that a Gandhi and a Martin Luther King, Jr. knew. They knew that one must have silence and stillness before taking on the evil in their worlds. Why? Because the answers to those bigger issues did not lie in formulating a strategy so much as listening to the strategy that wanted to come forth. They needed to still their own emotional eddies and desire for violent reaction before something different could arise. And arise, it did. A powerful force that they could not deny and could not hold back. They surrendered. They followed that inner power, and in so doing became leaders who caught the power of that tide and changed history.
I’m not suggesting I’m a Gandhi or an MLK. But in the small ways I have begun to touch others in recent years, I recognize a similar surrender. A massage therapist by trade, I have had to learn to make peace with the bodies on which I work. The average career span of a massage therapist today is 18 mos. As I teach massage therapy to students and try to instill in them the way to long and healthy careers, I ponder that I’ve been in the field for 10 years and ask what has given me longevity and on-going enthusiasm for the work. The answer: I stopped fighting people’s bodies. They often have piano wires and rocks where muscles used to be, and if I try to force their muscles to soften and surrender to me, I will only increase their resistance as well as my own fatigue.
Earlier in my career, I nearly burned out because I tried to respond to the ubiquitous request for “more pressure!” I didn’t want to lose clients, and so when they tried to direct the strategy of the session, telling me to go deeper when their bodies were saying something different, I reacted. I worked more deeply, despite my intuition. I didn’t challenge them, as I could have, with skillful education of how the body works and suggestions of how we could work together to get the results they wanted. I clung to clients who didn’t want the kind of work I did best. I experienced fatigue and repulsion in my work. I got sick. My business floundered.
In recent years, massage has come back to me in a new way. The added pressures of single parenthood, rather than diminishing my capacity for self-care, have actually increased it. I now take only those clients who respond to the work I love to do. I take time to nurture myself so that I ultimately have more to give to my son and to them. I’m following the current of health in my life I so longed to surrender to before, but which I’d resisted in both big and little ways. I am refreshed, and I find that I at last have a voice to share something that contributes to the world in a way that makes a difference and gives me joy. My mantra today: be the noodle.