The Writing Parent

Of all of the parenting decisions my mother made when I was in middle school, perhaps the one I am most grateful for is how she chose to write about me.

My mother spent several years as a professional writer. She pursued that occupation with an energy, resilience, and enthusiasm that was inspirational. She was quite prolific during those years, but there is one piece that was published that I particularly think of as “my book” —  a book of prayers for children transitioning into adolescence called Junior High’s a Jungle, Lord.

The summer after my seventh grade year, I went away to a summer program for several weeks. My mother missed me so much that she wrote a book in a voice that she imagined might be like my own internal voice.

She took experiences of my own and experiences of hers when she was my age and she fictionalized them. She wrote in the first person, from the point of view of a fictional me – she entered imaginatively into what it might feel like to be someone like me in a school like my school. The whole project was arguably an exercise in empathy, which is, after all, what intercessory prayer requires. And if a person is writing prayers for someone to pray for themselves and their peers, then in a sense, that writer first is praying on the reader’s behalf.

In the work, what I saw as a thirteen year old was a mother who thought deeply about me and my experiences, who was making an effort to understand me, and who missed me when I wasn’t around. It was heart-warming.

It helped that I got to read it in manuscript form, so I didn’t get blind-sided by what she had chosen to reveal, as I sometimes did when my Dad would use me or my siblings as a sermon illustration, bless him. And in any case, she wasn’t reporting on facts – she was using my experiences as a jumping off point for an imaginative work. Anything that didn’t scan with my own experience of events I could brush off as artistic license.

Now, as a parent myself, I see my mother’s books as an example of how to parent in public. Writing about one’s parenting struggles may be honest, but parents need to remember that, at some point, their children learn how to read. And (a concern my mother’s generation could not have anticipated when they had children at home) how to use an internet search engine. When we are writing about parenting for other parents, we may, ironically, be forgetting that we are parents – that we have children who are perfectly capable of listening in on the conversation.

When instead we write for children, we are not forgetting that we are parents — and hopefully we are further remembering what it will be like for our own children to read what we have written, and perhaps even to meet people who have also read what we have written. (Though Christopher Milne might have qualified that with the response, “Not necessarily.”)

Of course, it is also possible to write for grown-ups in a way that remembers that our children will grow up – but never forgetting that their relationships with trusted adults (and particularly with their parents) requires a respectful discernment about what information is appropriate to share with any person who could ever come across it. Some things are best reserved to be shared at carefully chosen times within intimate relationships with known people. That isn’t dishonest: it’s setting healthy boundaries.

There are a number of concerns that I have struggled with pertaining to writing for public consumption, and this one is near the top of the list: once something is published, you don’t get to chose who reads it. It is out there for literally anyone, at any time now or in the future to consume and then interpret, without any further mitigating input from the writer.

I have been reading Let the Children Come, by Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore. I highly recommend it, but not without any reservations. Her central idea is something I have believed for a long time myself, and she puts it extraordinarily well early on in the book: “children must be fully respected as persons, valued as gifts, and viewed as agents.” (from the author’s Introduction)

However, I also have many disagreements with her book. I was going to say, “many small disagreements,” but I think that the implications for some of these ideas of hers that I question may be – at least, let’s say, non-trivial.

For instance, in the very beginning of her introduction, Miller-McLemore articulates the need to which her book responds with an extended reflection on the difference between parenting very small children and parenting older children: “Perhaps that is why [Anne] Lamott and other women have written powerful accounts of early motherhood but seldom delve into experiences of long-term parenting. After the first few years, the waters become incredibly muddy.”

Leaving aside for the moment that this book was written in 2003 and that Lamott has written a great deal since then (not to mention all of the new figures that have risen up to write about parenting in that time), it does seem that there is a lot more written about life with babies (and toddlers and preschoolers) than memoirs about life with older children.

Certainly I wrote a great deal about my daughter earlier in her life, but I have made few blog entries related to her in the past couple of years. (She is now 10.)

Speaking for myself, that is not because parenting a child this age is “muddier” or more complicated, or because I am trying to hide from my inconsistencies as a parent (which are, as I am a human being, positively rife), or because my daughter doesn’t do anything wonderfully inspiring anymore (she inspires me every day!), or because it eludes my abilities to say anything meaningful about this time in our lives.

Instead, I write very little about her because I am trying to be thoughtful about how best to share our stories, in a way that not only respects her privacy and her wishes now, but that respects our relationship into the future.

I wanted to record her earlier experiences, in part because I knew that she would not remember them, and I feared that I might forget, too. As she has gotten older, I have remained interested in writing, especially in writing about children and their integral role in the kingdom of God. But I have been becoming increasingly thoughtful about how to do that in the way that love demands: with a respect for the particular people of all ages that I have been blessed to get to know in person.

 

Empathy, fatigue, and evil

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I was listening yesterday to “The State of Things” on WUNC radio. The program was on scientific and historical understandings of empathy. One of the presenters suggested that empathy was actually problematic, because we tend to give more weight to the problems of people we know (because that is who we tend to empathize with), and so bigger problems – like starvation, for instance – are too little addressed because we do not have faces and names to put with the problem.

This seemed to me like a problem of empathic imagination – and a theological problem. Can we truly forget when we hear of war in Syria, for instance, that the thousands of people killed already have families who know them by name, who feel their loss keenly – as keenly as we would feel the loss of a family member?  I suppose most of us can, or this and countless other atrocities would not continue.

As I listened to the program, I began to work out a hypothesis that I have been slowly developing about empathy existing on a spectrum. My idea is that some varieties of depression and anxiety may be rooted in a genius for empathy: if hearing of *any* suffering leads to feeling the pain of the one who suffers, then in a world full of suffering, the deeply empathic individual quickly becomes overwhelmed. Over time, this constant barrage of suffering can lead to classic depression symptoms of withdrawal (what I have sometimes called “retreating to my blanket cave”). In order to survive and function, a person with an overwhelming capacity for empathy must find a way to protect herself – perhaps through selectively ignoring certain information, or through finding safe modes of retreat and escape, or through constructing armor to shield her softest places.

When I was 27, I went to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the first time, as a chaperone to a group of middle schoolers preparing for confirmation. I was armed and ready. I had shed tears for almost two decades over the horror of the concentration camps: I had been reading about the Holocaust since I was ten, even having taken a class in college entitled The Politics of Genocide. I had celebrated Passover with the son of a Holocaust survivor – he wept through the entire meal. I had cried myself dry over the years.

I was there to support the younger people as they encountered wave after wave of new and distressing information. As for me, I was weary and jaded. The systematic elimination of gays and lesbians, gypsies, and the mentally ill was not new. The torture in the name of scientific experimentation was known and could not be more horrible than it had been before. Standing in a train car and imagining myself packed in with a hundred others, unable to see where we were going, on our way to our deaths, whether immediate or drawn out over years – I had imagined it before. It was the stuff of my dreams. The U.S. complicity in the Holocaust did not surprise me. The pile of shoes only told me what I had already known – that the sheer volume of the loss in no way belied the particularity of the loss of each individual. I began to feel afraid of my capacity for self-protection. Had I become so hard that nothing could touch me? Among a busload full of teenagers and chaperones, I alone had not cried.

And then, in the hallway leading into the vestibule that marked the end of our journey, there was a quote from a survivor. I cannot remember the exact words, but what he said was that for him, God had died in the concentration camp. God was dead. Like a vacuum, the emptiness left behind by God’s exit sucked the air out of my lungs and the marrow out of my bones – I felt hollowed out, an empty suit of armor. I wept. Wept for a loss that was greater than any other loss can be – the loss, for one who believed, of the ground of all his being. The loss of his belief in a love that would not let him go. The loss of his belief in a power greater than death and terror and insanity.

Paul writes that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And evil is a relentless nothing that stops at nothing to separate us from the love of God. But evil is a lie. And I remain convinced that love wins.

No storm can shake my inmost calm, when to that rock I’m clinging.  If Love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing?

If Love is Lord…

In these days when we still wait for Love without suffering and Light with no shadows, I sing every chance I get, I hide in my blanket cave when I must, and when I am strong enough I weep, weep in the loneliest caverns of another’s heart.

There and Back Again: A writer’s tale

Given that I slipped deeper into depression yesterday while unpacking events from my last year of college, driving around town today listening to songs from the unhappiest decade of my life was arguably unwise.

A couple of weeks ago, we bought a new Prius V! I feel more affection for this vehicle than any inanimate object properly deserves, but I am not alone in this: just this past weekend, after a couple of hours of Christmas shopping, my daughter actually hugged the Prius, and with genuine affection in her voice said, “I love you, car!”

Since we buy new cars only every 10 years or so, relatively standard features are a revelation to us. This one comes with satellite radio capabilities. Hoping to rope us into a paid subscription, the car comes with a free 3 month trial subscription to Sirius. Today I discovered a station called “First Wave – Classic Alternative Rock” which could just as easily be titled “The nostalgia channel for aging Gen X pre-hipsters.” It is the first time in years that I have heard Echo and the Bunnymen, The Psychedelic Furs, The Buzzcocks, Berlin, The Pretenders, Alphaville, The Clash, REM, and Midnight Oil all on the same day. Delivering my daughter’s forgotten backpack to school, it took a great deal of effort to turn off the car just as “London Calling” was getting underway.

Exhausted after a bit of exercise this afternoon, I reluctantly headed off to an appointment, only to discover that it was cancelled! And located right next door: frozen yogurt! With mochi and strawberries! And best of all, after eating said frozen yogurt while reading the latest mystery novel in my rotation, I got into the car just in time to catch the beginning of The Cure’s “Close to Me.”

It was the same remixed version that I had listened to on my way to pick up a high school friend for our first date. The music and lyrics both seem designed to intensify anxiety, and I remembered that long drive (he lived an hour away – these sorts of drives are common when you attend a magnet school which drew its student body from 3 adjacent counties, as ours did), and the strange mix of fear and optimism that always preceded a first date for me.

Poor guy – he was sweet and naïve in a way that I had not anticipated from someone with long dark hair, leather boots, a black trench coat, and genuine artistic ability. Most damningly, he refused to accept my carefully cultivated badass veneer. As a friend from my first year of college recently told me, “Even in that dark time, I could see the light of God’s love shining through you.” Which is great and all, since I really did love everybody. But that was dangerous, and the only way I knew how to protect my overly vulnerable heart was to be under constant attack. Young Mr. Trenchcoat was far too chivalrous. I kept my internal demons at bay by externalizing them – he didn’t have so much as a snarky bone in his body. And so it was that what began with the anxious anticipation of danger became instead the long anxious avoidance of breaking the heart of a truly decent person.

Last night, in the midst of a difficult conversation about the dark years governed by my depression, by my experiments in how much damage I could do to myself and allow others to do to me before I was utterly broken, my husband asked, “Are those your only two choices, for that time to matter so much that it breaks you, or for it to not matter at all?”
“Yes!” I answered, “Yes. If I think about it, I am paralyzed. So all I can do is not think about it. To remember that that time is past, that the present is good, that I am happy now. To cut the past loose and forget it.”

But then I remembered something that my daughter has said about her anxieties, her memories, her scary thoughts. “Mommy – every word I have in me is written on a piece of paper in my mind, and I can’t erase it or throw it away! It is there forever!”
Yep. There they are. As made most evident by my mood yesterday, brought on by a simple allusion to the five months I spent as a cabdriver in Richmond, Virginia. That seemingly innocuous footnote opened up into a wormhole that I sped through screaming, like Bill & Ted in the phone booth, only to land in a past time that I had no real interest in reliving. “Execute them!” “Bogus.” Bogus indeeed.

Writing yesterday afternoon about my past made me feel temporarily worse. But I have reason to believe that by naming my demons I might slowly begin to exorcise them at last.

I have some experience with this. September and October proved to be a time when I was given the opportunity to explore my divorce at age 22 through a couple of writing assignments. It was a miserable process at first, this going down into Sheol. But as I edited one piece in particular, stripping away layers of analysis until I was left with dialogue and sensory experience; as I cut away paragraphs of events inessential to the story to find the core, the center – Sting’s “still point of destruction” –  I found healing. I remembered the preciousness of my pain, and how it has honed my empathy to a clean edge that can cut away at sentiment or pierce the protective carapace of long suffering, a blade with which I may draw those few drops of blood that will remind one who has come to loathe herself that still she has a heart that beats within her. And as I wrote and remembered, Jesus broke the gates of Sheol and grasped my hands and pulled me back into my place amongst the living.

And so I shall peer into the abyss again, with a reasonable hope that should I fall headfirst over the precipice, I will not be forgotten there, nor left behind.