Hell away: My messy beautiful.

*** This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project.  To learn more and join us, click here. And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, click here. ***

Dear friends,

phyllis & jm beach

P and me, circa 1968.

The fact that Kate called me from college during the middle of a business meeting, which I was leading but which I interrupted to answer, was odd enough.

Her questions were even odder.

“I have Sunday off and I’m going to the city to have lunch with Aunt P. I was wondering if you know of a good place to eat in her neighborhood. Also, I want to go to the cemetery and place flowers on Grannie’s grave and I don’t know how to get there.”

On the surface, there are easy answers to Kate’s questions. But my sweet daughter unknowingly unleashed a hornet’s nest of angst in two simple sentences — so much so that I excused myself from the meeting to step outside, where stepping outside equals stepping into the vast wasteland of  my emotion on the topic of my sister.

I’ve had what can politely be described as a “difficult” relationship with my sister. At the time of my mother’s death nearly four years ago, she and I were estranged for reasons not necessary to detail here but related to her lifetime of addiction and my lifetime of carefully cultivated anger. Right before my mother passed, Mom said very little other than she’d had a good life and she wasn’t afraid to die. But she had a final request: “Please stay close to P,” she asked quietly. “She doesn’t have anyone and she needs you.”

Let me tell you — I could write an irrefutable essay on why deathbed requests should be immediately outlawed, but that’s not the point of this story.  To those living and those departing, deathbed requests are an unfair entreaty, or at least that’s how I felt after eight weeks of being the only family member holding vigil at my mother’s side during her final illness. But faced with my mother’s last request to do the one thing I knew I couldn’t do, I did what any loving daughter would do.

I lied.

“Okay,” I whispered. “I will.”

Six months later, I moved out of state. I moved for a lot of reasons, but being five hours away from my sister was surely at the top of the list.

And, now, here was my daughter, away at college and willing to drive two hours to have lunch with her aunt, whose calls I mostly don’t answer and whose texts I only occasionally return. I’ve always believed the universe sends people signals when they most need them. On this day, I thought the universe must be drunk, too. I didn’t like this signal and it surely was nothing more than a kind of cosmic glitch, an errant sign that had nothing to do with me.

But I took a deep breath and answered my daughter’s questions amid the traffic noise outside my office. I was surprisingly composed but unsurprisingly terse. I told her my sister lives in a terrible neighborhood and there’s no decent place to eat within miles of her house. But don’t take her anywhere fancy, I cautioned, because she looks like a homeless person. And don’t bother going to the cemetery because the grave is still unmarked and you won’t be able to find it. It’s a long story, I said, with the kind of exasperated tone that made it clear the failure to buy a headstone had everything to do with my sister’s broken promises.

It was the worst kind of explanation a mother could give a daughter, especially one as good-hearted as mine. It was shameful, really, but it was all I had. Love didn’t exactly win at that moment.

You know — those of us who are fans of Glennon Melton would break a leg to meet her. I adore Glennon, but you know who I really want to meet? I want to meet Glennon’s Sister. I want to pull Sister aside and ask how she managed to be Sister to the Drunk all those years. Because during my sister’s awful, horrible years when she stole my car and my money and my jewelry and found every way humanly possibly to hurt my mother and nearly got herself killed, more than once by a drunken male companion — I stayed the hell away.

I made sure P knew she was not invited to my wedding. I made my mother promise not to take my children around her. When she was sent to jail, many times, I never bothered to ask where or why or for how long. I refused to visit her in the hospital after she was nearly beaten to death with a steel pipe until my mother tearfully begged me to go, after which I stood in the doorway of her dingy hospital room because I wasn’t brave enough to cross the linoleum abyss between my anger and her pain.

You know, for as hard as it must be to be Drunk — and Glennon has given me so many insights into that experience — it’s also hard to be Sister. I’m not making excuses, I’m just saying sobriety, especially my kind of protective sobriety which looks a lot like furious disapproval, is hard, too. The addicted and the sober — we’re like two jagged stones tumbling down a dirt road, crashing into each other and knocking off our smooth edges, unintentionally making each other sharper and scarring up the soft earth around us. We might be doing the best we can, the only ways we know how — and for Pete’s sake we ought to give each other a break given the circumstances — but it’s so ugly and so painful we don’t know what to do so we just keep tumbling.

Surprisingly, though, after my mother died the anger I had nurtured about my sister over so many years began to fray in a way that startled me. The unraveling of what had safeguarded and sustained me, the tattering that had moved beyond the edges into the center of my tightly woven gall, left me unsteady, as if I had lost the only emotional compass that worked for me with P. I sought a counselor’s assistance because the problem with losing your anger is that it’s not immediately replaced with an emotion you know how to work with.  The absence of fury doesn’t create compassion.  It’s something more like benign forbearance, which isn’t particularly conducive to family reconciliations. The counselor advised me to set the boundaries I needed to protect myself, but to commit to taking action in keeping with my values. Apparently the boundary I needed was 300 miles wide.

I figured I’d think about the values part later.

You know, my husband has this theory that the incarcerated aren’t the only ones in prison. He believes the wardens — and the System that retains them — are locked in the same dreadful dynamic, and the keepers aren’t any more free to leave than the criminals. Who’s to say which side of the bars is more subjugating, he asks?

His insight resonates with me because I haven’t known for a long time who’s on what side of what jail, P and me. She’s paid a steep price, including her health, a good bit of her sanity, and an unbreakable tether to her daily dose at the methadone clinic.

But I’ve paid a price too, one I’m just beginning to calculate. I’ve never believed in a literal hell but I can tell you hell away is a torturous place, maybe exactly what God warned us about, but so close to our noses that we humans couldn’t see it and instead we told stories of fire and brimstone because, you know, speck in her eye.

I don’t have a tidy answer today. I know P loves me, because she never fails to tell me. I know I love her too, because I am starting to let myself feel it, no matter how hard I try to resist and how few times I say it. I know we are sisters because we are breathtakingly imperfect in our sameness and because a million years ago, when she was 16 and I was 6, we rode around in the car together, the windows rolled down and the am radio playing Janis Joplin, who taught us “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

The lyrics held true for her and I suddenly think they have held true for me, too.  Maybe we were destined to spiral downward together, to plumb the depths of our souls in tandem until she hit the rock bottom of reckless addiction and I hit the rock bottom of hardened sobriety.  The landing always hurts, I suddenly realize, but there’s comfort in finding hard ground, in stopping the free fall.

Who knew we would be emancipated together 45 years later?

With gratitude {for daughters, sisters, and second chances},

Joan, but, like my sister, you can call me JM

messybeautiful

 

 

From tears. To smiles. To oh crap. To cardiac arrest. To laughs. To epiphanies. Holy cow what a day!

Dear friends,

Yesterday was one wild ride.

It started with tears at home because, you know, I got all choked up over my own post even as I was posting it. (Yes, I’m a goofball.)

But then things started looking up as I read your very kind and insightful and empathetic comments, both on this space and on my Facebook page. (I can’t thank all of you enough for sharing your stories and bolstering my spirits.)

Then on my lunch hour I finally got around to booking our trip to NYC — er, Hoboken — for Kate’s graduation gift. I had been procrastinating because — while I’ve been to NYC four times in my life, I don’t know it all that well — and I was fearful of making dreadful, regrettable mistakes. On the other hand, I wasn’t about to pay $500 a night for a hotel room, so I eventually had to just pick one and go with it.

So I chose a little “boutique” hotel on the Upper West Side. (I don’t know why, maybe because it was close to the subway, and I stayed in Times Square once and didn’t find it all that appealing, and I didn’t think I wanted to be downtown, so I just, you know, went with the one with the pretty pictures and the good price.) And after I picked the hotel and prepaid for it, I realized it’s so “charming” and so “historic” it doesn’t have an elevator. And some of the reviews said it sometimes doesn’t have hot water, either. So lord only knows what I’ve gotten us into in the name of frugality.

And then I checked the price of Broadway tickets and had a heart attack. I really want to see Book of Mormon but I really don’t want to pay $600 for two tickets, so I’m trying to decide whether it makes sense to just stand in the Times Square discount ticket line and take our chances when we get there. (Thoughts, anyone?)

Then I sketched out our itinerary for all five days and couldn’t decide if Little Italy or Chinatown was the better bet. MOMA or Met? NBC Studio Tour or TV and Movie Sites Tour? Fifth Avenue or Garment District or SoHo for shopping?

Then I found this — a handy little map of all the shopping in Soho and it pretty much sealed the deal.

Then I got dizzy trying to decide if we could tour Ground Zero and Liberty/Ellis Island in one day, so I abandoned trip planning until I can get my wits about me.

Then I came home, where my entire family dog-piled into the kitchen because we were all starving. And, for once, I made supper while my kids made lists of the friends they plan to invite to our Memorial Day float trip. And Parker — who’s not my most decisive child — was really having trouble narrowing down his extensive list of social contacts to fit into an 8-man raft — causing me to lose patience.

And Kate finally stepped in and said “Parker! Have tryouts and make cuts!”

Which made every last one of us laugh out loud, even Parker. And in that moment — that moment where we were all together and laughing and eating and having fun — I remembered what so many of you said to me about savoring every moment.

And I did.

I surely did.

With gratitude {for the clarity to put down my hanky and embrace your wise words},

Joan, who knows even if the hotel she picked yesterday is a flea-bag, it still won’t be her biggest travel blunder ever, because her friends still tease her about the time she purchased Royals vs. Yankees tickets for their girls weekend in Kansas City only to get to Kauffman Stadium and realize the game was at Yankee Stadium

Kind of a big deal.

Dear friends,

Kindness (no pun intended) is kind of a big deal for me.

What I mean is — I strive to be kind, in word and in deed. And I expect you to return the favor. It’s not that I’m a quid-pro-quo kind of gal. I’m  not. But I believe kindness is our most effective social currency. I try to spread it around liberally (it makes me feel good, it makes you feel good, so why not?), and I’m always puzzled and a little sad when someone else doesn’t.

I fell in love with Mr. Mom for many reasons, but I can say without reservation the chief reason is that he’s kind. In fact, my mother said two things about him after she met him for the first time. First: Lordy, that’s the skinniest boy I’ve ever seen. Second: He’s very kind.  My mother always did know how to get to the point.

To make sure my point is clear, I think it’s important to define what I mean by kind.  Kind people are thoughtful. They are empathetic. They extend the benefit of the doubt. They grant favors, particularly unsolicited ones. They forgive easily and quickly. They spread love through kind words and strive to leave others feeling better than they found them.

I’ve been thinking for a couple of weeks now about a post on this topic. There’s a woman I know who I’ll refer to as Jane.  Jane goes out of her way to avoid kindness. I’m not saying Jane is mean, although she has been unkind to me on a few occasions. Mostly what I notice is a complete absence of kindness in her demeanor, meaning you don’t feel a scrap of love or empathy or thoughtfulness when you interact with her.

Even when I extend a kind word to Jane, she has trouble accepting it. (Or I must assume she has trouble accepting it because she never comments, nor offers the customary “thank you.”)

Joan: You look really nice today. I like your dress.

Jane: <silence>

I try not to interpret silence as hostility but, frankly, it’s difficult. And I’m human, so if I think you’re hostile toward me, I tense up. I get defensive. I avoid you. Eventually, I might even justify thinking unkind thoughts about you because you started it, for Pete’s sake! And, best I can tell, Jane has many difficult relationships, so it’s not like it’s my problem.  (How’s that for one big, juicy rationalization? Jane started it and it’s all her fault!)

But Jane is a woman I really can’t be unkind to, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying to crack the code. And nothing, nada, I’ve tried has worked. This is unusual for me because I’ve cracked a lot of codes in my lifetime. I’m known to be good with people. And so failing with Jane just makes me feel worse about me and worse about her.

Until the other day. When I tripped across this sentiment while browsing the internet:

Source: La Boom

Notice it’s reminding us to be kind to ourselves rather than others. I wondered why for a moment, then I realized that kindness, like charity, starts at home. If you cannot be kind to yourself, you can’t possibly be kind to others.

And imagine how you would feel if your Brain never said one kind word to your Self. Your Self would feel under attack by that biatch the Brain, and — when under attack — Self’s first instinct is to pull in, toughen the exterior, put out the vibe You can’t touch me.

This notion gave me pause. I don’t know much about Jane, but I know she grew up disadvantaged. And based on how hard she is on others, I can only imagine how hard she is on herself . . . and how hard somebody from her past must have been on her to make Jane believe she needed to keep it up, even in the face of kindness from others.

Somehow, this helps me. It inspires me to keep extending the kindnesses, even if Jane continues to rebuff me. Whatever kind word or deed I extend to Jane might just be the only one she gets that day, from the people around her or from herself. And that’s a powerful motivator, I find. How about you?

With gratitude {for a mother and grandmother who instilled in me enough confidence and hope to properly cultivate kindness to myself and others},

Joan, who usually finds all the answers she needs when the questions stop being about her