Saturday, February 23, 2008

Puzzle pieces

So much of the important stuff that's going on in our minds and hearts and souls is going on underneath the radar of our consciousness. Of course it is... we can't expect to spend our waking hours in the active contemplation of our origins, our patterns, emotions, dysfunctions, passions and prejudices. We're rightly concerned with the stuff of our everyday survival. We're also all missing big, significant parts of our own histories: most of infancy and early childhood that shaped who we are in irreversible ways; our life in the womb; the histories of our parents and grandparents and aunts, uncles, great-aunts, great-uncles... the little dramas that played out between these people and set the scene before we were a twinkle in our mothers' eyes. We also all have much to learn about life and the world in general, and we're all always learning (if we permit ourselves), up until the last day of our lives.

In a sense, we are all going through our lives without a map... in fact, with only the barest sketch of the terrain around us. We are all improvising daily, no matter how much we believe ourselves to be boring, unremarkable creatures of habit.

There are times when I am suddenly reminded of some of the folks in my parents' families that they shielded us from. I have generally thought that this is something I owe them thanks for, because I could have incorporated some of these folks' behaviors and ideas into my own identity if I'd been exposed to them much at an early age. Sometimes, however, I wonder what would have happened if B and I had even met some of these folks. Would we be more compassionate than we are towards people like them, towards alcoholics, the mentally ill, those who live off the societal grid?

As it was, we only knew them through stories that my Dad would tell and the occasional worn-looking envelope with seemingly 3rd grade writing that my Dad would receive, asking for money. Sometimes, when I was small and he was more idealistic, he would give them money... but we didn't have much as it was and compliance inevitably led to more requests of increasing magnitude, so he eventually stopped giving. I remember once seeing a letter in the trash, and feeling sad and confused because I didn't understand but it didn't seem right. I was also curious about these people, but could never get that much information about them.

Just now, as I was browsing through blogs and contemplating whether to walk to Ballston and hop on a bus to church for the Japanese movie screening, I came upon a truly disturbing article about prostitution posted on Matt Pritchard's blog. I'm not going to link to it here (google Matt if you want to to see it), it disturbed me that much. The thing about this article is that it has strips of pictures that show women who are prostitutes. One imagines that these women were picked up multiple times by police for prostitution, and they had their pictures taken each time over a time period of years. The series of pictures is nauseating and chilling, as young women turn into disfigured and grotesque monsters: beaten, abused, drugged, with dead and soulless eyes. I could not stop reading the article, and I could not stop looking at the pictures. When I finally closed the screen, I felt like I was going to throw up.

Now, there isn't a woman on earth who doesn't count rape among their absolute worst nightmares, and sexual slavery is something most people just flat out can't think about, me among them. But this bothered me at some visceral level... why? Was I remembering my friends from high school who were sexually abused as little girls and promiscuous by the time they were 14 and 15 years old? Was I remembering other articles I'd read or movies I'd seen as a kid that made a strong impression on me? Then it suddenly hit me: my great-aunt Jane was a prostitute. She was one of these women: mentally ill and raised by a mentally ill woman, alcoholic, possibly drug-addicted, uneducated, an easy target for a pimp... and that was her life. She died that way, rejected by her older siblings --fine, upstanding church people who could not bear to see their sister live like this-- and largely ignored by most of the rest of her family, including a mentally ill brother whose life is not entirely dissimilar to hers, and my Dad. and, I guess, me, although I never met her and wouldn't have known her if I saw her on the street.

I don't know that I bear responsibility for not helping her. General family consensus among those still living is that she refused to be helped... and my Dad, although he couldn't afford it, paid for her burial. I think he made his peace with her, and with his mother's family, that way. If memory serves, I was also about 28 or 29when she died, and there's not much I could have done for her financially, either. But I never thought to ask... never thought to inquire if there were some way I could help her, and have never spent more time thinking about her than I am right now, typing this post.

A lot of my close friends know that my Dad's Mom took her own life when I was 5. I flip that fact out to people without emotion, almost casually, as though it's a fact about me rather than her, as though it explains the anger and confusion I sometimes feel about who I am in this world. The truth is it really just raises tons of unanswered questions. My Dad finally told me a lot about his mother's family a couple of years ago, just before they sold the house. He described his terrifying Irish matriarch of a great-grandmother --Mama Bessie-- who "kept court" in her house, attended by her three childless daughters. He talked of how Bessie rejected his grandmother --Mama Ruth-- after the premature death of her son, Ruth's husband... of how Ruth, as a single mother in the 30s and 40s, was financially dependent on Bessie, and how Bessie used her power to isolate and humiliate Ruth. He told me of Ruth's gradual descent into insanity, and how her older children --who could remember their mother when she was lucid and who themselves were protected and tended to by Bessie-- turned out to be good citizens, while the younger children --including my Grandmother-- were left to their own devices. He was typically silent on his own abuse as a child, but I know that Bessie's treatment of her daughter-in-law bore its fruit generations later in my Dad's horrible childhood.

I don't mean to be negative, to focus on characterizations of people I never met as though this somehow gives me more depth or mystery. However, the fact is that my entrance into the world was in a context which was mostly invisible to me (as it is to all children) and part of that context involved pain, mental illness, broken relationships, and abuse. My own fierce desire to see healing in peoples' lives could have its root in this, but at some subterranean, subconscious level that I don't fully understand. My deep disturbance at an article on prostitution could have its source in some reservoir of collective guilt felt by a whole family who turned their back on one of their own as she descended into an earthly hell. My intolerance at movie scenes depicting any sexual violence whatsoever... is it possible that Jane's memories are out there in the general pool of our family's collective memory? Is it possible that we all carry our piece of what her life was in our souls? or maybe just a vague awareness in our imaginations?

I don't pretend to understand collective memory. I do think it exists, in our storytelling if not in some metaphysical way. I know that my mother used to say our family was cursed, and that I thought that was a lot of negative, self-fulfilling prophecy bullshit. I also thought it was a way to avoid responsibility for her own actions and those of my father. I do get, though, that I also have a hunger to make sense of my failings and faults, that I am likely in a constant subconscious search for these puzzle pieces that give me a clue to my own tendencies, that might help me understand some of my self-defeating behaviors, and my magnetic pull towards people who struggle.

I believe that my parents ended some of the family curses, and that my brother and I are ending even more. I believe we are learning from the mistakes of past generations, and I do think it started with my parents and their turning to faith in Jesus. I want to believe that my life and my brother's life will tip the balance of our family reservoir towards joy, towards peace, towards being active and alive members of the world community, towards being just and fair and kind to others. Towards the whole "God is Love" thing. These puzzle pieces of our family's history remind me, though, of how dependent we are on His Grace, and how much we have to thank Him for.

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