November shadows and lost innocence
Most of us begin our lives with little sense of how we want it to unfold.
A vague hope for "happiness," a certain desire for stability and a simple claim to consistency is all that drives us.
Then, without invitation and against our will, our lives come into focus. For some the focus is work-related. We find a work, a life with real purpose and meaning. We drive ourselves forward, focused on work and career.
Other find focus in marriage, family, building a home and a new life. Knowing who we are, we dive into our communities with belief that our gifts make a difference. Our lives matter.
This happens, remember, without invitation. None of us will this to occur - it emerges when we are ready to receive. I like to think of it as "grace;" a gift, freely given to each of us; a gift we have not earned and did not seek.
I come to this definition because of the way in which grace pulled me into focus.
I remember it well. I was sixteen-years-old when my parents' marriage ended. The year was 1965. Twiggy ruled the fashion scene and the Beatles were in competition with the Rolling Stones for the hearts and minds of my generation.
The world was upside down with demonstrations against racism, early resistance to the war in Vietnam and an increasing awareness of the growing, uncompromising poverty that was on the rise in urban and rural communities.
I cared nothing for any of it. Living in the shadow of my parents' cruel marriage, I only knew fear.
I felt this way because no one gave me an alternative. My mother was not sophisticated enough to comfort me while my father destroyed our family. No one, it seemed, had the imagination to stop him. My father drove his destruction to its ugly end and our family dissolved into shame and ruin.
My beloved brother joined the war in Vietnam to escape the cruelty of it all. My older sister, worried and distraught, moved home to try to save us. In so doing she abandoned her three little children to a husband who never forgave her.
Every day was fraught with ugly, terrifying domestic drama. My mother in tears, my angry sister storming her righteousness throughout the house. And I was too young to know the sad truth; that none of it was my fault, and I could neither fix nor save anything.
It was a November afternoon, much like this one. The skies were dark with the hint of winter to come. My mother, my only friend in my family, had moved away to save herself, leaving me in a house filled with people who did not see or care for me.
I had no one. No one watched to make certain I did my geometry. No one troubled to give me money for milk or pack my school lunch. No one laundered my clothes or made them self available to sign my report card, sit beside me in the pew on Sunday or drive me to piano lessons.
Outside the family, no one knew the truth. In those days, parents stayed married. Only drunks, whores and the mentally ill divorced.
Shame crowded my life. I longed to not exist. Some nights when I went to bed, I closed my eyes and prayed to awaken in a new time, a new place, a new little girl.
On this particular day, my father told me something ugly; I no longer remember what it was. Something, I'm certain, about his loathing for my mother, his disdain for our family, his desire for freedom. Whatever the message, he broke my heart. I longed to escape.
There was no where to go where he could not interrupt me with his anger. In those days, there were no locks on our doors; my parents were immigrant Swedes who, because of the way they were raised, did not believe in personal, individual privacy.
Only one room was private; the family bathroom on the second floor. And so to think things through on that bleak, sunless day, I did what I always did to get away from everyone. I retreated to the family bathroom and locked the door. There I sat and wept for my lost family.
The room was appointed in God-awful blush pink. The garish hue covered not only the tile, but the tub, toilet and sink as well. Using the bathroom at our house was a bit like slipping into a rosy repose. And so I sat in that cramped, difficult room, surrounded in pink, and wept for over an hour until I could cry no more.
When at last I felt in control, I rose to look at myself in the mirror.
It was something I did a great deal in those days. I was, after all, a teen age girl, obsessed with my appearance.
On that raw, November afternoon, I looked into the mirror, expecting to see as I always did, the same round, optimistic face I always engaged.
It wasn't the first time, and would not be the last, that I saw my face in pain. My eyes were red and swollen with suffering. The year was 1965 and my lips were too full to be pretty by Twiggy standards. My hair needed shampoo and the puffy flesh of my nose and brow was flushed with sorrow.
But that afternoon, I looked beyond all the anxieties I usually found in the girl in the mirror. I looked beyond the disfigurement and drama of that November afternoon, beyond my hurting heart and desperate yearning for peace.
I looked deep into the mirror, my face inches from the glass. My eye met the eye in the mirror, and look deep into the blue rimming the black core. As if for the first time, I lingered, looking beyond what I had always seen.
I emerged. In the curvature of my sweet, young chin I saw my determination. In the tender, submissive corners of my smile, I found my compassion and power. In the gentle arch of my brow, my gentle eye lash, the subtle chip of enamel on my front tooth, I found someone worthy of protecting.
"You're going to be all right," I said aloud. "You're going to get through this, come out the other side, and be all right."
There, alone in the ghastly pink room, I wrapped my sixteen-year-old self in my arms, and rocked myself into comfort.
Someone knocked on the door and ordered me out. I don't remember who, and it doesn't matter.
I emerged. On the other side of the door, I emerged as myself.
Most of us go through life without seeking purpose. We let purpose find us, trip us up, hold us hostage and rip us into submission.
On that November day, forty-something years ago, while the Vietnam war tortured and nearly killed my brother; while my sister wept in the cellar over her lost babies and my mother languished in exile in a house far from the one she loved, I found myself.
Grabbing hold, I created purpose for my childhood and the years to come.
When the November shadows fall and I feel more than ever the pressing limits of my life, I allow myself to remember the meaning behind that dreary decision.
I remember a pink room and a young girl, sick in powerlessness and innocence, who emerged a resilient woman, tired of the austerity of shame and the hungry hold of pain.