Friday, October 24, 2008

Through the Window of a Train

A couple of months ago I posted a piece about the conflict I had with my son over being asked to give my permission for him to ride to school with another boy. I remember asking for time to think about it, which didn’t go over well with him or the other parents. It turns out that almost two months later, the young driver still does not have his license. Obviously, I feel set up. It's really a testament of how far things have unraveled and I must have contributed something to it, because people don't just wake up one day and decide to do things like this for fun.

I’ve been thinking again about my attachment to figuring out this stuff that's been happening in the last year either to me or others, and am realizing that, maybe it's not worth trying to figure out, because some of these things may not be about me after all. I’m learning that there are times when you have to accept being a spectator, being removed or without responsibility no matter what the temptation is, and just let it stop there. Just stop. Stop the train of destruction or it will run over you and the people you care about.

As I mentioned I've had the iPod on Shuffle and one of the things on there that I don't frankly listen to often enough is a workshop by one of my favorite writers, a Buddhist nun named Pema Chodron. Her writing has always brought me around when I've been struggling with difficult things because rather than set forth these lofty goals of enlightenment, she breaks it down into little bits of advice. The recording that popped up is a gift from Shameless, titled "Don't Bite the Hook." Eerily timed, the segment that came up yesterday during my drive home was one about knee-jerk reactions.

I think we are all trained to have knee-jerk reactions -- in school, on the playground, later in board rooms and at family gatherings. I have had my share when feel I have to defend myself or see an injustice. I had one a couple of weeks ago and I regret it because it came back around to bite someone I care about right in the tookus, which was of course not my intention but once we have taken an action and can't take it back, no matter how "justified" we feel it is, we have no control over what happens next or how it will be used to further the destructive behavior we think we have the power to stop.

More and more, in different areas, I am starting to see how pulling back, even when a situation involves the people you love most, is the only way to truly be able to bring about more peace in the world. As Pema Chodron says, the buck has to stop somewhere, and it might as well stop with you, as hard as that might be. Maybe it won't make a huge difference, but it will make a difference in how we feel about ourselves. It's a sort of "detox" program from our own knee-jerk tendencies that ultimately destroy not just our own health and happiness and progress as people but it is a real downer for the rest of the folks in your world.

My daughter last night retold a story that her father told her about an injury she got when she was a very little person, not quite two. I remember the incident because I was there, discovered she was bleeding, knew that she was not consolable even with breastfeeding, so we took her to the ER and she had a stitch put in. She was never told to go to her room as it was described to her; she was too little to have been sent to her room, and too upset. But apparently I was not even in the story; who knows how I was repainted by the storyteller. This is the kind of thing that people do to each other when they want the bad feelings to continue and engender some kind of negative action or reaction. Even writing about it is a rather negative reaction on my part but it's part of what I am processing and it validates why I have to get off that train and get on a new one.

In these situations, you have to extract yourself from the intimacy of the experience and look in on it as though you know nobody involved. It doesn't mean I love my children less or worry for them less, or that the things my friends and family might go through are not serious or important. But when we are so entwined in the circumstance, are we really able to help the person we care about? We can step out of it and watch things unfold as though we were a passenger on a train and this is one of the things witnessed on the journey. Now, certainly if there were any real danger, most of us would probably decide to step in. But how often is that really, truly necessary? Not as often as our knee-jerk instinct might lead us to believe.

This Blue Highway song, the title track from their latest release, also has been on my mind for a couple of days. I believe it received a Song of the Year nomination from IBMA. The more I think about my experience in discovering music like this and meeting the people involved, the more I believe and feel I am on the right track. I've never felt as comfortable and "right" as when I am around these folks. Music just has a way of evening things out, of giving us an important outlet for our feelings and allowing us to express strong emotions without hurting other people. Earlier this week I put my earphones in and played through this tune and a bunch of others and it felt wonderful and sounded not too bad! I hope you find the time this weekend to enjoy the things that help you express yourself and bring you some peace, too.

Through the Window of a Train

Everybody drives the same old roads these days
Don't see a thing, but they know the way
Every mile's a marker, every town's the same
Another place to stop but not to stay

Daddy was a brakeman on the L&N
Sometimes he'd let me ride along with him
No matter where we'd stop along the way
Everybody knew his name

A different story down every line
People workin' hard just to live and die
I saw it all once upon a time
Through the window of a train

Then we started back the way we came
Like people moving through a picture frame
Seems the whole world's further down the track
But I'm always looking back

I don't expect you all to understand
Or see the country like a railroad man
So many things you'd never realize
Unless you saw 'em with these eyes

Birmingham to Jackson, hear the whistle call
And the sun goes down like a big red ball
In my memory I still see it all
Through the window of a train


At October 25, 2008 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time to share these thoughts. They are so helpful to me as I work with concepts such as acceptance and detachment. I found your blog by searching blogs that featured Pema. Keep up the great (and important) work!

At October 25, 2008 11:33 PM, Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At October 25, 2008 11:39 PM, Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

I am dumbfounded. Trying to cut you out of your daughter's memories? That is truly unforgivable.

Then there is the other side of me, wondering, do they think we are really *that* stupid? I mean, COME ON! She's going to wipe the floor with them, much sooner than they realize.

Still sputtering...


At October 26, 2008 11:13 AM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

The thing is, Shameless, that's precisely what I am trying to avoid. Or, I should say, not assign any value to. However such a realization might make us feel, those feelings have nothing to do with how her relationship unfolds. Part of the stepping back is accepting that ultimately the relationship between my children and their father are the responsibility of those folks involved, not me. It's my hope that my children and their father have a long and loving relationship. I can't ask that it be honest; who among us can say that we really ever had an entirely honest relationship with our parents?

I had a long conversation with my aunt yesterday. I told her I was surprised to find that her father, my grandfather, had been buried with my grandmother -- albeit at her feet, at my mother's behest. My grandfather had left my grandmother when my mother and her sister were pretty young, and they all had to work to make ends meet.

"Your grandmother never spoke ill about your grandfather," she told me. This is the standard to which I need to hold myself. Their father is not some mythological creature but a real person who, unlike my grandfather, interacts with his children on a real and regular basis. The quality or the veracity of those interactions are theirs alone.

My son confided in me yesterday something that I already knew. I suspect he thought he might elicit some kind of outrage or for me to step in and save the day. But I explained that there really is nothing I can do that would not make things worse. I think he understood.

Reading Obama's "Dreams of My Father" has helped me to understand that no matter what we do, our children are faced with compromise at a very early age. It's something we all must go through, finding out who we are. Children of divorce have an added level of difficulty in this, I think, and so I probably have a lot of silent wincing ahead of me. But their journey is theirs, mine is mine, and where they cross paths a few places of "ours".

Just as I learned, someday their parents will be gone and they will be left to unravel the mysteries of their history and belonging. They, like my siblings and I, will have to reclaim our relationship to each other without our parents. It is a ritual most of us who outlive our parents will have to endure. All we really can do is give them a little space to sort out how to use the tools and dynamics they see in play ever day and will imitate.

Did any of us really know, when our children were babies, just how complicated raising them really would be? Was it that long ago that you and I would sit together and nurse Butterfly and Son of Mando -- now wonderful, snarky, creative young adults. We remember. That's enough.

At October 28, 2008 7:15 AM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Anon! I didn't mean to overlook your comment. Glad you found something of value in this little blog. Pema Chodron's writing has always clicked with me. I think it's her sense of humor, and just her ability to get us to see our own humanity and how hard it is sometimes to do the right thing. Her work has been a real touchstone for me, going on about 6 or 7 years now. Nice to meet a fellow fan!

At October 30, 2008 11:17 AM, Blogger Ipsissimus said...

I also think a part of not biting the hook is letting go once you've bitten and gotten hurt. I used to hold grudges for years, but the only person it hurt was me. Now, I still get furious with people, sometimes acting on that rage - but when it's over, it's over. I try to focus on what is going on now. There are too many things to be bitter and angry about - but it destroys your own happiness to dwell that bitterness and relive it when you could be enjoying your now.

That said, I still have problems with not biting the hook with my siblings. Family is so hard - they know all the buttons (they created them). I dread the holidays because of an incident between my brother and I last year and need to work on both the "letting go" part and on "not biting the hook" a second time.

At October 31, 2008 12:44 PM, Anonymous piepiepie said...

I think this is a great attitude shift to make when you're faced with such craziness and unkindness. It isn't going to really do any good if you are tied up in the middle of it.

BTW ... I too have that particular Pema Chodron CD on my iPod, and I've found that when I have it on shuffle, appropriate snippets come up at just the right time. Very interesting.

Hugs to you. Even with a detached attitude, it's not an easy road to be on.

At October 31, 2008 5:37 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hello Ips and Pie!
Like other friends you’ve both had your share of difficulties recently and I’m glad you stop by. I wish I could get down to see all of you sometime within reason. You are two more people I’m just so glad are in my little circle of hope or whatever it is.

Pema Chodron resonates so strongly with me because when I listen to her recount the verses and comment on them, I can hear in her voice a realness, a sort of, “I know whereof I speak” kind of experience coming through the humor and the wisdom that tells you she’s dealt with her share of feelings of anger and aggression somewhere along the line.

Ips, so true. It’s like we enjoy the pain of biting the hook, like we wouldn’t know what else to do without it. I can completely understand your apprehension about your next encounter with your brother. There's almost an expectation that something happen, so the tendency is to play into that It is very hard to feel or think otherwise! We spend our lives perfecting our ability to react – to bite and fight back – rather than objectify what might be happening, and before we know it we’ve gotten ourselves into an untenable and unpleasant situation once again. I really do not ever want to repeat what happened back in August with the driving thing. Of all the bad interactions in my life, if that wasn’t the top one, it was in the top two. Even though it brought about better communication with my son, it really was horrible, and I know that my knee-jerk reaction to what felt like being bullied into something only fueled the feelings of aggression. I felt real rage – rage not necessarily at any one person but at being used in that fashion. But in the end, it was all completely pointless and just destroyed any goodwill that could have begun to exist. I didn't work well with the information I had at the time. I might otherwise have offered a more logical solution like "Why don't we revisit this when so and so has his license?" but that information wasn't available to me. So I didn't really engage the situation or the people, and I didn't stop to ask myself what else might have been going on, something more complex beneath the surface with the others that may have had nothing really to do with me. I just reacted. It's just not worth the feeling bad about yourself or making other people feel bad around you. Reaction to aggression with more aggression, even in thought, is like an endless shitstorm with glass in it. But it is so very, very hard to stop!

Now, Pie, there is a difference between that kind of craziness, and the craziness of some other things that have been going on that ultimately are not my problem, not because I don’t care about all the people involved -- and I do mean all because in all fairness one of them is trying to figure out a sense of place and belonging in a new situation -- but because they all have to figure it out. I made a big mistake by getting involved and it really indirectly hurt all the people I was trying to protect. So it’s easier, and better for everyone, for me to see it through the window of the train. But, when the stuff is coming at us directly and people are setting expectations on our behavior and pushing us instead of relating with us as equals, as people with feelings and thoughts of our own, resisting the hook becomes a bigger challenge, and so does seeing them in the same human way.
It is really hard. Look at the election and how it has defined and polarized people. I see all kinds of frustration and I am always noticing when I feel a judgement come on when I pass a house with a McCain-Palin sign. The truth is no candidate is going to solve our problems, or America's problems, and four years from now we will be going through another process. We want to think we are siding with the candidate who most represents our views, who will make the decisions we would be more likely to support or feel represented by, but it's much more complex than that. And yet look how the aggression has mounted and continues to mount.

Most of you probably saw the story of the two skinheads who purported to have a plan to kill Obama and behead all those other people. It is really, really hard for me not to feel real hatred for them, to wish them harm, to want to hurt people like that either with words or some kind of legal action. My guess is you and Ips and Shameless and most anyone we know feels the same. But at some level escalating the anger is what they're all about. We're left trying to figure out what the right response is to such horrible stuff. It's all about trying to learn what to do with the ball when it's tossed to us.


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