Laura G Owens ~ Writer. Raw. Real.

Never apologize for showing feeling. When you do, you apologize for the truth. – Benjamin Disrael

When people ask, but aren’t you glad your birth mother didn’t abort you?

Of course the answer is yes.

And no.

Let me be clear. I love my birth mother. I’m deeply grateful she gave me
life. I found her in 2016 after years of looking. Because I was finally ready.

My mother is seriously gush-worthy. A remarkable woman filled with love and
grace and indomitable strength. Smart, funny, one of the most thoughtful people
I’ve ever meant. I couldn’t ask for a better mother-child reunion.

And with my spectacular mother came three half-siblings, two aunts, an
uncle, cousins, nieces, nephews and family friends. A close-knit tribe
who embraced me from day one. No questions asked.

I’m not overstating. These reunions can go south pretty fast. People don’t
trust intentions, someone gets jealous, drama ensues, who they hell are you
after all these years?
Ugliness. But these are some really nice people who
I’m proud to share DNA.

I’m lucky to carry my mother’s genes. I see myself in her. Passionate,
chatty, curious, always up for a laugh, animal and nature lover, enthusiastic
and straightforward.

She was only 17 when she had me. A thriving senior in high school headed to a
top-ranked college. Her whole life ahead of her. The time was 1964, long before
abortion was an option. Even if it were an option, my mother was too far along.

I won’t get into the grit of her story because the details are hers. I will
say that before we met, before I even knew my mother’s name, I requested information
about her and my father (apparently longtime friends) from my adoption agency.
And to my surprise, three detailed pages, without names, showed up in my mailbox.

But even before I knew anything about my mother, I was vehemently
pro-choice simply because my adopted father told me I’d been given up for
adoption.

When I was old enough to understand what being an unwed mother meant, I
pictured a young woman (I guessed) and all that she had to endure in 1964.

My adopted family was socially liberal. My father a Republican and agnostic,
my mother a Democrat and Methodist (later Presbyterian). I had zero hell fire
conservative brimstone growing up. Nare a story about the sanctity of the fetus
or the non-sanctity. My brothers and sisters all just knew: don’t get knocked
up. College awaits you or else.

The adoption agency paperwork revealed that my mother took care of me in a maternity
home for ten days before I went to a foster, then adopted family. I can’t
imagine caring for my daughter for 10 days then handing her over. Until the pain
softened I’d probably wish I were dead. I’d never recover.  

For as long as I can remember, a woman’s right to choose has felt
monumentally important to respecting women as half the population.  

The issue makes me stomping mad because of the absolute gall of men
(and women) to decide a woman’s body and her livelihood. The patriarchy of the
whole thing infuriates me into near madness.

It launched me into my first bumper sticker in my late 20’s, “My body, my
choice” that my fiancé begged me to remove. “Oh you’re definitely getting
keyed,” he’d warn.

The right to choose speaks through me as if I’m speaking through my
mother. Fortuntely I’ve never had to make the choice. 

It’s an issue that speaks to me through all the unwed mother whose peers and
teachers and parents branded them with a scarlet slut in 1964.

This happened to my mother. Teachers gave her dirty looks.  No one
“knew” because my mother was sent away, but they whispered and
pointed in the high school hallway when she returned.

My father (an amazing man who I met in 2016) was also a senior with his
whole life ahead of him. The report made it clear that my paternal and
maternal grandparents were of course, horrified.

But for men it was different back then. A stupid mistake, but you
know boys. Wink, wink, hush hush.  
 

But for women, they allowed it to happen. Ladies don’t do such
things. And God knows, they don’t get pregnant.

So yes, I wished my mother had the choice to abort me without anyone knowing. If that’s what she wanted. I never felt abandoned by her. She was 17. But I wouldn’t feel abandoned by a mother of any age who was ill-equipped to care for me. That’s love, that’s not abandonment.  

I still mourn what my mother went through. Pregnancy. Banishment. Missed
high school. The hell of labor and delivery. The ghosts of her child haunting her over
the span of fifty years. Shame thrown at her like a village stoning.

There’s been a few times when a loved one realized I was pro-choice and said to me genuinely perplexed, “But if your mother had an abortion we wouldn’t know you.”

Of course I thanked them. I know they meant well. They were telling me, listen
you nimrod, it’s good that you were born so we can know you and love you.
Otherwise we wouldn’t know you.

Just this weekend a male friend, very pro-life, told me after we briefly
discussed the Roe overturn, “But aren’t you glad you were born?”

Well yes, but that’s never been the point.

The truth is if I wasn’t born I wouldn’t know I wasn’t born. Loved ones
wouldn’t know I wasn’t born.

You’re not missed when you’re not known.

And if you believe in this sort of thing, I think I’d be born eventually. I mean no disrespect to my mother. My lip quivers and I tread carefully here. But I think eventually, I’d enter the realm of existence.  

Much of what I write about explores accepting two opposite feelings, that if
you allow them, can co-exist peacefully.

I love my mother for giving me life and I wish she’d had the option to abort me. This doesn’t feel remotely at odds or weird.

I promise I don’t hate myself. I’m not grappling nor have I ever, with an
existential crisis.

My half-sister is this beautiful, open, spirited warm soul. She calls it
like she sees it with humor but no meanness. She joked with me a few
months ago at a wedding that “You know, it’s because of you that my mom is so
pro-life.” I laughed and said, “Well, it’s because of her that I’m so
pro-choice.”

That’s all we needed to say. I still don’t know where my sister stands on
the issue. I don’t need to.

For obvious reasons I don’t talk to my mother about abortion. I knew from
day one how she felt. I know her heart and her religion call her to stand
firmly behind her position and are foundational to who she is. As my heart and
my religion call me to stand behind my position.

So yes of course I’m grateful my mother had me. I also wish she’d had the
option to abort me. Then. And now, for the future of all girls and
women.

 

Ambivalence in motherhood Part 1: When you’re a “different” kind of mom. 

What happens when you feel like you’re a “different kind of mom?”

I share on Mother Plus podcast why right away as a stay-at-home mother, I knew I needed more—more time away than the other mothers, more of my own interests.

Listen on ITunes
Listen on Spotify

Why we need to have real conversations about our ambivalent feelings about motherhood AND find other moms who understand us.

Why having feelings of ambivalence has nothing to do with how much you love your children.

Why you are allowed to have childcare—even if you are a stay-at-home-mom.

Feel the guilt and do it anyway. How writing helped me process my conflicted feelings. 

Ambivalence in motherhood Part 2: Changing the definition of selfish

Why I put my daughter in two half-day pre-schools even though I was at home (imagine the gasps!)

Accepting the type of mother we are, even if we’re different from other moms, and find people who understand and support you. 

Why do we judge moms for using childcare?

Listen on ITunes
Listen on Spotify

The mother needs to be as happy as her kids: changing the definition of “selfishness” to be “filling” self and caring for self. 

It’s important to acknowledge and accept that ambivalence—even hating motherhood at times— is normal.

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vaccine passport

Orlando Sentinel guest column: Vaccine-passport debate shows middle-ground thinking is dead.

Vaccine passport

Orginally published by the Orlando Sentinel – Guest columnist

My daughter recently attended a Harry Styles concert at the Amway Center in Orlando. As required by the venue she showed her vaccine passport (or a negative COVID-19 test 48 hours prior).

Now, the Amway Center and other establishments in Florida, are under investigation for violating Gov. Ron DeSantis’s ban on vaccine passports.

When will it end? The politicization of everything vs. decisions based on critical thinking and common sense?

Norwegian Cruise Lines defied DeSantis’s vaccine passport ban. Of course they did. Cruise ships are giant moving superspreaders.

So why is our hands-off-business governor fighting this no-brainer?

Politics. And some voters on all sides are following suit.

Coming down on an issue solely in opposition to the other party. If they’re for it, I’m against it. But are they really against the issue across every angle?

Never mind nuance. Never mind science and common sense. That uncomfortable middle ground that makes our head hurt.

God help you if you ponder the practicality of mask mandates and vaccine passports in all situations. Party treason.

And when the vaccine was first released if you had a legitimate concern (vs. a ridiculous conspiracy theory) you were a selfish moron.

Where’s the nuanced thinking in statements like, “Wear masks even if you’re vaccinated!” or “Vaccine passports are like living under the Gestapo!”

On vaccine passports I’m not totally against or in favor. In other words, it depends.

I support (temporarily) requiring proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID test) at large crowd and travel venues. I support a vaccine mandate in schools, for frontline workers and in health-care settings. Lots of people, close together, spread lots of germs. That’s not political. That’s science.

But I’m against requiring them at every business, e.g. every retailer and restaurant. Common sense knows this isn’t practical. And it’s invasive. I say that and I’m a Democrat.

I support businesses encouraging but not requiring the vaccine as a contingency for employment (or a negative COVID test).

I personally have no issue showing my vax card (I have yet to be asked). It’s not like I’m revealing I had an STD. But if I had to show my card everywhere from now until who knows, it would get old. Of course I’d pull it out without pitching a fit. It’s how I feel about masks.

I hate them. Yes, we all do. But I hate masks a lot. Except I know they help stop the spread so prevaccine I politely complied.

Okay, you got me. Masks, like vaccines, aren’t 100%.

But when we scream “Masks don’t work!” we’ve willingly stopped using common sense, never mind respect for established science.

Masks do workThey help.

The word help doesn’t mean prevent. It means to assist. Vaccines assist in stopping the spread.

I’m concerned we’ve lost our will to even consider the nuance behind issues. Shades-of-gray thinking doesn’t fit into a tidy party narrative of Us vs. Them. And our cognitive dissonance is astronomical.

If a business still requires a mask I politely wear it, otherwise I forgo because I’m vaccinated. Uber still requires masks. So last weekend, I privately grumbled to my husband, put on my mask, got in the car, and kept my mouth shut about it to the driver.

I keep strengthening my immune system with a supplement regime I’ve done for years. And once the stay-at-home order was lifted in Florida in May 2020, my husband and I went out — a lot. I tested and quarantined before I visited my elderly stepmom, reminding her that a false negative was a real possibility.

I’ve tested three times including one antibody test. All negative.

Some people might call me selfish for going out so often before I was vaccinated. I’d ask them to consider what I’ve been doing to strengthen my immune system.

Either it worked or I’m lucky. I got sick plenty before I started on this regime years ago. Now I don’t. Or at least not for long.

We owe it to each other to care about the collective. We also have the right to take individual calculated risks. My husband and I are one of those messy middle-of-the-road people during the pandemic. We don’t fit one box or the other.

At this point during COVID-19 we might consider mandates in context of where and when they make sense.

We teach our kids to be good citizens and critical thinkers, shouldn’t adults do the same?

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bed alarm

“Bed alarm” – a poem in my father’s voice

Published on the Feminine Collective

I don’t tremble, but they assume I’m Katherine Hepburn’s kind.
We share our Parkinson’s frozen mask, expressionless, involuntary
deceit of emotion.

My shuffling gait halts while I calibrate my balance, refusing my wife’s arm
even as my committee of limbs won’t comply.

Stiffening, my six-foot body cracks against the shower door that night.
Cubes of blunt glass explode. I am bare, crooked. Fetal once again. Read entire poem…

Photo credit: John Towner

Parenting through a pademic

A mother’s need for control in a pandemic

It struck me recently that my daughter is handling the uncertainty of the pandemic much better than I am. She accepts not knowing exactly when the world might return to normal.

When we won’t need masks and hugging will be safe again. She makes peace with the unknowns while I feel simmering anxiety over a pandemic with no clear end in sight. “Mom you just have to deal with it,” she tells me over and over. “You can’t control when things will change.” 

I envy Taylor’s ability to let go of the invisible strings of control while I grasp for them. I suspect this flows from my childhood when I craved stability during constant family turmoil.

My mother abandoned us when I was five, two years later I had a new stepmom and two stepbrothers who my other three brothers, emotionally scarred, viciously battled.

I recall family therapy, lots of screaming and in the end, another divorce. While I always knew my stepmom and father loved me, I also had the sense that any minute my foundation might crumble. Chaos felt inevitable and entirely out of my hands. Read More

10 things to tell yourself when you’re going through a hard time.

From Tiny Buddha (I love this site).

Every point hit home for me. But oddly enough, number two stood out because at first glance, it sounded kind of selfish.

You have the right to feel how you feel even if other people have it worse. Your pain is valid regardless of what anyone else is going through.

Sometimes I feel a little petty when I vent about minor problems, or even big ones (like family estrangments, health issues) in contrast to true tragedy. Ukraine, COVID deaths, a friend who lost a loved one or is suffering from a serious illness, job loss, financial ruin, divorce.

How dare I bitch about the contractor who didn’t show up or ripped us off? How insignificant and trivial. Veering on the now grossly overused, “Karen.” (My laid-back husband and daughter have accused me of “going all Karen” on customer service or contractors simply for refusing to get screwed over).

We should all try to view our problems in contrast to bigger suffering. It puts our life into perspective. And yet, all stress and pain is valid, while not created equally.

I remember years ago I was venting to a friend about my husband being insensitive about something. I don’t remember what. Nothing major. All of a sudden my friend, usually a great listener, snapped. “Well at least he’s alive. Remember I told you Lisa just lost her husband from a heart attack? Dead before 50. Now THAT’S suffering.”

I was taken back and defensive. I told her I remember her telling me about her friend’s husband and how sorry I was. But I wasn’t comparing my minor complaints to the death of a spouse, obviously.

It became clear she lashed out from fear. She told me she was terrified how many people she knew who suddenly dropped dead at a young age (usually undetected heart issues). My friend, in her late 40’s at the time, was facing her own mortality and the possibility of suddenly losing her own husband. The unpredictability of life is something she’d spoken to me about every time she heard of someone dying too young.

So for her, my venting at that moment felt trite and meaningless.

But all feelings are valid.

Now if I chronically complained about small stuff, yes, I deserve a knock upside the head reminder that suffering is relative. No one likes a chronic complainer.

One of the practices I use to get myself out of a funk is to focus on gratitude. What’s working in my life vs what’s not.

Part of my gratitude practice is to mentally rank how much harder my life could be if I say, I had an incurable disease like so and so, or if my partner left me like so and so or if I was living homeless or hand to mouth like countless people across the world.

My gratitude list is infinite. Likely yours is too.

I’m not sure that comparing and contrasting ourselves aka, “it could be worse” is pure gratitude at its best. But it is a form of gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most powerful, transformative tools humans possess.

But I often say, it’s normal to have two seemingly conflicted feelings at the SAME time. What I mean is you can feel grateful for x,y,z in your life and upset about a,b,c.

You don’t have to feel guilty for experiencing pain because someone else has worse pain. Your feelings are valid. It’s all about timing and self-awareness. When or even if to vent to someone who’s suffering.

Dealing with negative emotions

I love, I hate. Peace after accepting ambivalence.

All mothers know this. 

That the love we have for our child is so intense and all-consuming that it’s spectacular and terrifying in its power. 

Yet it’s rare we admit that what motherhood gives us, so too can she take away…

Depression

A few weeks after my daughter was born I was hit with severe postpartum depression.

My husband did everything he could within the confines and nerves of new fatherhood. What was he supposed to do as he watched his wife genuinely smile and coo and competently take care of our baby, then an hour later, turn around and sob and crumble into wishing “I’d just fall into a black hole of feeling nothing. Dead but not really dead.” 

How do you respond to your wife’s sort of death wish?

My husband was a hands-on dad from the start. There for me in every way. But with my exhaustion and hormone-imbalanced brain, nothing helped my depression except getting back on hormone replacement therapy (I have a pituitary disorder that requires HRT), more sleep, and sheer time to get used to the demands of being a new mother.

Identity crisis

I was a stay-at-home mother by grateful choice (and self-imposed guilt), but as the months went on sometimes I felt mind-numbingly bored. Flattened and anxious by the drudgery and repetition. Despite the numerous Mommy and Me playgroups I joined. Despite friends telling me “this too shall pass and they’re only young once.” Despite date nights with my husband and girls’ nights.

Without fail I followed the formula prescribed to make the transition to being at home easier. In fact I did more than most of my stay-at-home mom friends who weren’t yet comfortable leaving their little ones.

But it wasn’t enough. 

Not until my daughter started Kindergarten and I had more time to myself and to write. First I wrote cathartic stream-of-consciousness ramblings to self-soothe, then gradually I wrote as a part-time profession.  

Motherhood tore open beautiful facets of myself and my relationships. Richer in emotion, new layers of appreciation emerged as I watched my child giggle at dandelion fluff, blow a ladybug off her finger, run from the waves chasing her little ankles. 

But motherhood also threw me into a full-on identity crisis.

I’d been an ambitious marketing professional for 20 years and then suddenly I wasn’t. A shift so abrupt as to almost reorganize my DNA overnight.

My daughter was of course front and center, her well-being always top of mind. But becoming a parent didn’t suddenly wipe clean my ambition or my need to spend time alone or with my husband and friends. 

And yet I was told that it would, promised that “once I saw that little baby nothing else would matter in the world.” But other things did still matter, even while I fell in love with this perfect creature I wanted more than anything.  

Emotions in contradiction. Or were they?

Mothers are all different as humans are all different

Being at home full-time is just easier for some mothers. I don’t mean the work is easier. 

It’s universally hard to be chronically sleep-deprived and change 800 diapers. To be hypervigilant that your child doesn’t choke, suffocate in her sleep, stick her fingers in sockets or the dog’s mouth, run in the street, smear her poop, sling-shot off the slide or bite her toddler friend – again.

It’s exhausting to worry about Texas-shaped rashes, fevers, teething, vaccine reactions, solid food introductions, weird cries, to nurse, rock, soothe, stroll, shop, play Candyland incessantly and watch The Wiggles for the 90th time. 

But some women adapt better to this new normal. They don’t have a full-on identity crisis as I did. 

It goes without saying that watching your child grow and thrive is spectacular. What’s not spectacular is the exhaustion and the ambivalent feelings we grapple with alongside judgment from other parents. 

The “I love my child, but I hate……” 

I dropped out of the workforce when my daughter was 9 months old (I’d returned part-time after maternity leave).  Once the honeymoon of being home ended and the silence of no adult company crept in, once my daughter’s two-hour screaming fests shattered my nerves — the stress, repetition and boredom drove me mad. 

So to process my feelings, when I had time I wrote.

I also read stacks of books about real motherhood. Gritty, raw stories (My favorite, Susan Maushart’s The Mask of Motherhood). These books unpacked and validated the anger, resentment and anxiety mixed with gratitude, awe and love.

To be human is to feel a spectrum of good and “bad” emotion….

The spectrum of emotions I have since become obsessed to accept rather than vilify.

From that space came a compulsion to write what I learned, loved and loathed about the experience of being human, about grappling with ambivalence. 

It starts with the truth. Unpolished. Uncomfortable at first. 

It starts with being radically honest with ourselves (and with people we trust).

Honesty takes a risk. Honesty is terrifying. 

But gradually the chokehold of trying to pretend you’re someone you’re not comes off.  

Freedom comes from (trying) not to judge yourself for feeling different from your friends, mother, sister, cousin, and neighbors.

When I enrolled my daughter in two pre-schools at the same time (half days Mon-Tues for one, Wed-Thu another), you can imagine the comments.

“That’s interesting, I’d never heard of anyone doing that before,” said one friend. “Well at least you’re not doing it just to get your nails done,” said another. “You’re doing it to have time to write.”

“Actually I’m doing it to have time for errands, writing and nails.” 

One of my daughter’s pre-school teachers asked me, “Doesn’t your daughter get confused?” 

“Not it all. She’s doing really well. Does she seem confused to you?”

“Well, no, actually.”  

As humans we share traits born of the instinct to survive and to thrive.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food, shelter, safety, a need for love, validation and belonging.

But we’re also individuals, spectacular in our breadth and depth of interests, challenges and pathways to finding peace, joy, balance and God knows, less angst.

In the end, your authentic self is who should show up every day. Because the ones who love you will love you despite — or probably because of who you are. The others, well, they never mattered much anyway.

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Condolences that hurt

I just listened to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast where he interviewed Nicole Byer (both are comedians, actors, podcasters). Marc asked Nicole when her parents passed away. Both were in their mid-50’s. Like anyone who loses parents too young, Nicole had a hard time.  

And like most well-intended people who console the bereaved, the condolences came pouring in. Death is uncomfortable. What to say, what not say.

I’m sorry for your loss. We’ll miss her so much. I’m here for you. What can I do? Let me bring you dinner, help with arrangements, whatever you need.

These words are kind, comforting and thoughtful. A salve to ease the unimaginable.

But there are a few words that harm, “At least she’s in a better place.”

Nicole said she heard it a lot.

I know. I really believe they think they’re offering Christian comfort.

But to the survivors, even after long intense suffering, losing their loved one feels like hell on earth. Even if their loved one passing is a relief.  

“Better place” translates to, “I know you’re hurting but maybe feel a tiny bit of comfort because where they are is better than where they were.”

Still, it’s a crushing platitude for what the survivor feels. 

Profound breathless gut-punched loss, aching grief and suffocating loneliness. How to move through the next moment, the next hour, the next breakfast and bedtime’s oppressive emptiness. 

The smell of his shirts, a stray sock near the bed, his favorite mug or leftovers. The photos, travels, shared spaces in every inch of the house. His children’s faces and tears. Thousands of lingering floating reminders that stab over and over and over.    

Marc laughed when Nicole mentioned “in a better place.”

“Yeah what the hell is that,” he said. “Better place? No it’s not better. Better is here, with me. That’s better.”

That’s how I feel. Better is here.

This is probably why I never sense my father’s presence like lots of people do with deceased loved ones. I envy their connection. Their surprise ethereal embrace. Some people sense a spirit, or meaningful personal objects fall down for no reason, supernatural events that tell them their loved one is close. I’m here. I’m okay. You’ll be okay.

I loved my father with every cell.  I told a friend years before he died in 2006 that when he went, I’d crumble and never recover. I felt it years before I lost him which is why I think I did recover. That and relief that he wasn’t suffering anymore.  

My deceased father has never been a spiritual presence. He’s gone. Finite. Only pictures, videos and memories that I choose to look at bring him back. Perhaps I never sense him because spirit energy isn’t enough for me so I don’t even try. Also, the supernatural freaks me out a little.  I believe but don’t want to experience.

I want all of my father or none of him. Not his essence. Not his energy. Energy can’t congratulate my daughter on graduating from high school, college and getting her first career job.

At least I had years to say goodbye even as his Lewy Body dementia and Parkinson’s advanced. I got a lot of my dad even as his mind changed.  Even when he was confused about things, like constantly falling because he forgot he shouldn’t shuffle to the kitchen to clean out his teacup. He’d forget his body didn’t behave the way his mind wanted. But he never forgot people. Not one. He’d forget time frames, like that I’d recently visited. 

Marc Maron’s longtime girlfriend Lynn died fast and unexpectedly two years ago. He didn’t get to say goodbye in the hospital after paramedics picked her up in his apartment. It was during COVID. Death was quarantined. It’s one of the saddest things I heard during the pandemic. Barred from holding a loved one’s hand. 

I understand when someone is suffering with no chance of recovery that dying is the better place. Whether it’s heaven or the relief of nothingness. The pain stops. That’s better.

My stepmother has this expression she often says about end of life. “There’s worst things than death.” No one said “better place” when Dad died. They understood my father would shoot them a dirty look from the universe. 

My father’s illnesses stole the brilliant, witty, loving person I knew all my life.  For the most part he lived and communicated marginally well thanks to a litany of meds and my amazing stepmother.

Until the last year or so when he was wheelchair-bound he got around with a cane and walker. He ate okay. He continued to read voraciously. The day he died on Halloween, his mother’s birthday, two weeks before we’d gone to a famous Tampa steak house for my birthday. We pushed his wheelchair into the elegant table. Dad barely touched his spectacular food. His face rigid the way Parkinson’s involuntarily freezes expressions into faux angry.

That’s the night my father’s quality of life shrank to nothing.

One of his last passions, good food and wine gone. No taste. No appetite. All his pleasures now diseased.

Two days before he died my stepmother asked me to try get him to take a bite of ice cream. Sweet is apparently the final taste to go. My father reluctantly slurped a small spoonful of vanilla just to make me happy. His last bite was for me. His last words, “Thank you, but that’s all honey.”   

So yes death is a better place than that.

My father, a gentle quiet agnostic who never mocked my beliefs or cared what others followed, would say that the better place is here on earth and healthy. That death is a black void with sad survivors in the wake.

The better place lives longer than 74. The better place is with his wife, girls and grandkids, sipping a beautiful Burgundy, seasoning his all-day spaghetti sauce, reading the New York Times, ribbing everyone with his perfect Boris Karloff and endless British accents, at peace with past mistakes, watching the sunset over Indian Rocks Beach every summer, screaming at his NY Giants.  

setting boundaries

Are you sacrificing the peace within you to keep the peace around you?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with drama is remarkably low. Not that sort of “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low. I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable.

The last couple years I’ve been part of a spiritual book club at my Unitarian Universalist church. Now with COVID we meet through Zoom.

Our readings run the gamut of ancient and contemporary teachings. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Currently we’re reading Donna Cameron’s “A Year of Living Kindly.”

To sum up the latter:

Being nice is easy (polite and pleasant) but being kind is hard, that is — going out of your way to help someone, especially people who aren’t easy to like.

Perhaps you invite the cranky neighbor or incessant complainer friend to lunch because you know that deep down they’re lonely, sad, angry or scared. You put yourself in their shoes. You suck it up and do the right thing.

You call your bigoted friend with a big heart who you repeatedly have to correct when she offhandedly refers to “those Jews.” You clean out the elderly neighbor’s garage even as she criticizes how you stack the boxes or sweep the floor.

No matter how excruciating, you listen to incessant complaining about the minutia of minutia of the minutia.

The point is — kindness takes time, energy, courage and infinite patience.

I take great pains to avoid spending too much time with extremely difficult people: the racist relative, the self-centered high maintenance friend, the relentless complainer or critic, the snobs, blowhards and narcissists, all people you might like well enough in small doses, but who are generally a pain in the ass.

During book club we often find ourselves grappling with what we’re each willing to put up with around people we love but who do some pretty crappy stuff. Boundaries, and all that.

Like everyone in my book club I believe that “to love” is better than “to hate,” and that to forgive is better than to resent someone forever. But unlike many in my group, I find myself exploring these topics less from a spiritual point of view, and more from a psychological one.

During college I majored in psychology mostly as a reflex to growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family (to no one person’s fault I might add, and I was loved immensely). For years I thought I was semi screwed up and in turn I became obsessed with why I was the way I was (anxious, insecure, the quintessential people pleaser) and — with why humans sometimes treat each other in the most despicable ways.

My father and his first wife Peggy adopted me when I was a few months old. At some point when I was in Kindergarten Peggy met and fell in love with a married-with-children well-established world wildlife photographer while on a bird-watching cruise to the Seychelles.

From her brief affair, my mother immediately left my father and five kids and never came back. She forged an exotic life away from elegant housewife and busy mother in a small upper-middle-class NJ suburb, to wearing Birkenstocks, camping across the African Plains and shooting spectacular pictures for National Geographic and the like.

I’m told for a short time after Peggy left that I stopped talking, which if you know me for five minutes isn’t something I’m known (my family nickname was “motor mouth”).

My father, a remarkably demonstrative man for his era, made it quite clear that he loved all his kids, although he admitted later in life that he was often too harsh with my out-of-control brothers. A single working dad commuting an hour into New York City every day, raising a brood of five bereft children, despite family therapy and a grandmotherly nanny, is in the end, up against too much not to lose it from time to time.  

Two years after Peggy left my father remarried. His second wife Pat was a remarkable and resilient woman who brought with her, two wonderful boys from her first marriage. But by the time Pat came to the rescue there wasn’t much she could do to repair what Peggy destroyed.

I for instance, was a nervous little thing, briefly mute, refusing Pat once told me, to hug back, my arms peeled to my side, in unconscious defiance, I guess, of ever getting close to another mother. My oldest brother Mark, I learned after his death in 2012, started using drugs in high school, possibly even heroin (more on Mark later). At least once he called Pat a c….t which isn’t exactly the foundation for the Brady Bunch.

My middle brother John, a sweet anxious smart introvert, battled a stutter, and my youngest brother Chris was picked up by police for selling drugs near a sub shop and hiring a prostitute. Of all the kids my sister appeared the most unscathed although I realized later in life, that wasn’t the case.

I have vague memories of the boys (probably not John) rolling dog food cans at our kitten down our kitchen aisle, their version of delightful cat bowling. This was likely one step past “boys will be boys,” like when Chris lit firecrackers inside sunfish from our pond while my parent’s party guests looked on – and behavior that teetered on sociopath. Seven years after my father and Pat married, they got divorced, a marriage for many reasons, was destined to fail from the start.

As such, over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with high drama or difficult people is remarkably low. Not that sort of age-predicted “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low.

I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable. Sensing the faintest whiff of high maintenance (e.g. people often in fights, narcissists, drama queens, those constantly incensed or in need of inexhaustible attention) I will ever so politely back away until our interaction is seamlessly next to nothing.

My brilliant, funny, addict brother

My brother Mark’s opioid addiction got worse when he hurt his back after a fall while he worked on an oil rig in Arizona. Mark was a big bear of a guy, Paul Bunyan-like, brilliant with a wicked dark sarcasm. Even in the midst of peddling his worst addict lies, I laughed at his jokes and knew without question, that he loved his family. He once sent a letter to Pat, the same woman he battled and called the c-word, to thank her for taking care of me and my sister after Peggy left.

For years Mark worked as a public defender and later in private practice with a partner, who I can’t fathom how he managed to keep his practice afloat while dealing with Mark’s obvious addiction. Still, his partner kept him on until it got so bad that despite repeated warnings, he had no choice but to turn Mark into the Bar, who after a review, revoked Mark’s law license.

One afternoon in January 2012 my father’s third wife Mary, who I’d grown close from the moment we met, called and told me “You won’t believe this, but Mark’s dead.” An autopsy revealed that my brother died from opioids and advanced arteriosclerosis.

Shocked and gut-punched, I didn’t cry. Not then, not at his service, not once in nine years.  I wasn’t angry at Mark anymore, I just grew numb to his lies and without consciously realizing it, numb to Mark.

At one point my brother was so far gone that during a flight home from Orlando after visiting (when during lunch with my toddler by my side and Mark’s client across from me in a booth, Mark slurred the whole time) the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Houston. Apparently Mark’s seatmate tried to wake him so he could navigate around his body to go to the bathroom but Mark was unconscious.   

“Your son’s a big guy,” the ER doctor told my father and Mary, “anyone else with this level of alcohol and opioids in his system would be dead.”

Mark eventually landed in prison after three DUI’s (a felony in Arizona). Incarceration kept him alive for a while and when he got out he was sober. In time he started using drugs again, then entered multiple re-habs paid for by my father and Mary. Ultimately Mark settled into using opioids at a level just low enough to fake being sober.

A few years before prison, during one Christmas visit to my house, after a few beers and whatever drugs he took that day, as usual Mark’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, the whites flashed across the room, and his inevitable pronounced slur rolled in as he cranked up his brash humor, “So how the hell are you, Laura? Your patient husband sick of your bullshit yet?”

Despite my horror when Mark reached that level of intoxication, I still managed to laugh at his blunt comments. Because humor was stable, humor was who Mark was. Sober or otherwise.

But as the night went on he’d stir the pot. He’d lean back with his beer, smirk, then casually bring up issues between family members long forgotten or resolved. “So Laura you still pissed after that beach trip you guys had with Mary last year?” Because if Mark could dig up drama about someone else, the spotlight temporarily moved off the fact that he was drowning in his addiction.

One night during a Christmas visit while everyone ran around cooking dinner in our crowded kitchen, setting tables, TV blaring, music on, without asking Mark took my toddler daughter for a night walk on the golf course behind our house. It was only five minutes, but neither my husband nor I knew he took her, or that perhaps in the flurry of dinnertime activity, distracted, someone told him he could take her.  

I ran to the backyard, intercepted Mark and asked where the hell he’d been. When he walked inside he announced that he’d “hoisted Taylor on his shoulders to take a walk and with all that bouncing that she probably had her first orgasm.” Then he roared laughing, oblivious to how disgusted I was at his irresponsible behavior and pedophilic words about his niece. In his stewed brain my brother actually thought a pedophile joke was funny. I wanted to kill him.

I never sensed any inappropriate looks or behaviors towards our daughter, but from that moment my husband and I never allowed Mark alone in the room with her. When I told my father what Mark said that night he gently asked if I was sure “I heard right.” What else can a father say as he’s trying to process the most reprehensible comment imaginable made by his son, about his grandchild, as told by his daughter?

These were the years when Mark mysteriously needed to “get on my computer” to “check his emails” and then ask me to drive him to the nearest drugstore. A well-practiced cover-up by which Mark stockpiled pills from here to Mexico, courtesy of a rotation of more-than-willing doctors who back then, handed out pain killers like aspirin.

A small part of me felt sorry for Mark. I mourned his lost potential and the relationships he destroyed. He repeatedly broke my father’s heart and while in prison somehow caused a permanent rift with my middle brother for reasons I’m still unclear.

Once I became a mother, Mark-the-addict felt like an unintentional monster with a twisted sense of humor I no longer trusted. His filters were anesthetized, his sense of decency blurred by brain-thrashing opioids. I was vehemently protective of exposing my daughter to her uncle who although he clearly loved his niece, had mastered, as addicts do, deceit.

After prison Mark claimed he’d quit using drugs although I often heard the distinct faint slur, undetectable to anyone who didn’t know better. One morning in December 2011 he called to ask if he could visit in January.  “You sound like you’re on something,” I told him right away. “I’m just really really tired. I even had to check myself into the hospital for exhaustion last week,” he claimed.

I told Mark that he could come but that he better not be on drugs because I’d know. Nor could he stay with me or create drama with our stepmom Mary who’d he’d recently been fighting.

Mark agreed and said he’d email me his flight information. A few weeks later he was found dead on the community pool deck at his condo after a night hike in the hills, a new habit I once told him I admired (as well as his recent pursuit of a degree in pharmaceutical law which I found perfectly ironic).

Clearly my brother was more than just the “extremely difficult person” I mentioned earlier. He was an addict, menacing and toxic. I had to set clear unwavering boundaries or cut him off.

Difficult people on the other hand, are merely a thorn in our side. An inconvenience, annoying, insulting or exhausting. To extend acts of kindness to difficult people rather than to simply be nice is a feat. It’s noble.

And yet we all come to this moment with a different history of emotional pain and family chaos. As a result our threshold for dealing with drama and difficult personalities, our boundaries, are wildly different.

For one person regularly interacting with an extraordinarily difficult person is a spiritual challenge to showing radical compassion. A challenge of character. If we show enough compassion, patience, love and understanding, in time, maybe that person will become less difficult.

But for others, inching away from extremely difficult people is how we protect ourselves from what feels threatening to our peace of mind.

I recall a woman who every time I saw her at a party, trapped at least one person for an hour or more to recount tales of her downtrodden life. Nothing good, nothing positive despite clear evidence to the contrary, only the world stomping on her at every turn, big or small, real or perceived, past or present — every tale of woe.

And while I genuinely sympathized because I think she was lonely and struggling, as well as a nice person, I didn’t want to go down the same Rabbit Hole every time. All her stories were stuck in victimhood, and any advice I gently suggested she politely but repeatedly dismissed. So after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly I’d need some more wine or a snack. And off she went to find a new sympathetic ear.  

If we ran into each other when I walked my dog, I’d smile, say a brief hello then keep moving down the sidewalk like I was in a rush, enthusiastically waving goodbye as I said “Have a great day!” She wanted to talk, I wanted to escape.

Boundaries, I’ve come to realize, can be explicit or implicit. “If you do drugs when you come to my house, you’re out” is explicit. Inching down the sidewalk while you smile and wave goodbye to a chronic complainer is implicit. It says, hey I want to be polite, but I’m not investing too much of myself into you.

Boundaries are how we teach people to treat us, and how we decide to treat ourselves.

I know people willing to spend far more time with extremely difficult people than I am. I admire that. These people are saints. They reach into the lives of the most challenging over and over and over. They bear the pain of the snarly, hostile, impatient, cranky and critical, while also setting boundaries, like for instance, reminding The Difficult Person that cursing out the cashier or saying the n-word isn’t okay.

Personally I’ve forgiven myself for why, even if I extend a small kindness to a difficult person, a visit, a meal, that I need to bid that person goodbye before I get sucked in for the long haul. And frankly, maybe she’s bored with me anyway. Likely I won’t expand our 15 or 20 minute conversation into making any future plans. I’ll be polite, brief and vague.

Because what sounds like selfishness on my part, is protecting myself from excess exposure to certain kinds of people. So I extend one foot in the door, while I gently pull the other foot out. It’s the best I can do. Correction, it’s the best I choose to do.

Let's stop talking about Trump

It’s time to stop talking about Trump

It's time we stop talking about Trump to our loved ones.

Underneath our seeping political wounds over the past 5 years is an unsettled feeling no one on either side knows how to fix.

Because we can’t. Ever.

I’m an optimist and even with my abundance of wishful thinking I’m 100% sure we can’t move past this. By “this,” I mean finding “political common ground” with Trump supporters as we’re charged to do to “heal the nation.”

Don’t misunderstand, we’ll get back to decency and normal partisan political scuffling now that Trump is (almost) off the world stage. But the Trump Factor, aka those who love him, and the rest of us, can never discuss that man again if we want to get back to normal times with our loved ones, neighbors, etc.

This may not be the feel-good answer, but it’s true.

Because if we stop talking about Trump with his supporters we no longer have to feel like we’re trying to convince people that the blue sky they insist is yellow, is in fact, blue. It’s crazy-making to see something others don’t or won’t see.

One of the greatest tragedies of Trumplandia is that there’s no going back.

Now we know who supported him (twice), which includes some of our favorite people in the world. Family, friends, our dry cleaner, our pharmacist, our sweet neighbor (still sweet, btw). For a faction of Trump supporters, it was rabid zealot love from the start.

For others it was an insidious growing tolerance for his string of horrors, a numbing effect if you will, combined with full rejection of the Democrats. Either way, sad.

It’s deeply painful that our once benign political foe, say our opinionated Uncle Frank who used to be relentless with his trickle-down Reaganism vs our grassroots approach, isn’t who you thought he was.

Pre-Trump Uncle Frank was just a different sort of patriot than you or I. Not better or worse, but with an alternate point of view about what he thinks is best for the nation.

Except now Uncle Frank thinks what’s best for the nation is Trump.

A certifiable malignant narcissistic, racist, sexist, xenophobe, demagogue and autocrat in bed with Putin.

A president for who lying to is the norm and for who using superlatives (biggest crowd!) and bullying (loser!) is used to rile and divide rather than to keep calm and inform, as presidents are called to do.

A president who on the daily panicked the world (and his staff) with rogue tweets designed to feed his fragile ego and elevate his delusions of grandeur. It’s not a good strategy to keep people guessing “What next?” on the world stage. It’s a dangerous mind screw.

Trump politically and personally pulverized his own party naysayers until they retreated or crawled up his ass. He knowingly and repeatedly downplayed a deadly pandemic, smirked while he stoked hate in proud racists, and diabolically worked to dismantle democracy.

And in his latest flagrant act of corruption, Trump asked Georgia’s Secretary of State to ‘find’ him votes.

Trump does all this with the smug conceit of a megalomaniac convinced his power transcends the sanctity of facts, the Constitution and civility.

Come on, that person is better than a Democrat?

So no, with all due respect, I can’t reconcile a 2020 Trump vote. And frankly, I don’t want to. Not out of pride, because of my moral compass. Of course I’m no saint. I don’t see myself as better or worse than anyone out there. I’m plenty flawed.

But I’m damn proud that I sensed from the moment Trump mocked a disabled journalist and said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” or that McCain wasn’t a hero because he was captured or that Megan Kelly “had blood coming out of her eyes. Or blood coming out of her where ever,” that I knew in my every cell, that this guy wasn’t presidential material.

This is unquestionably a sick man. A “stable genius” isn’t prone to referring to himself as a stable genius.

Still I’ll never show a hint of unkindness to a Trump supporter. Never. That’s just basic Golden Rule 101. Like with all my opposing views, my disgust or disappointment will never come up in conversation. My relationships are a million times more precious than the Divider-In-Chief’s dark shadow of evil (and evil he is).

It’s easy to say now that Trump’s no longer a grave threat. Although his devout will undoubtedly keep him relevant by rallying his Trumpian views and a 2024 run.

Yet I’ll never forget that Trump voters and too many politicians thought he was a proper role model for our kids. Neither would they if they were honest and dealt with their boatload of cognitive dissonance.

Trump repeatedly showed the emotional maturity of a toddler. He lacked integrity, stability, humility, contrition and a commitment to the truth. He’s nothing more than a schoolyard bully who beat the nation’s soul to a pulp. He’s a psychological abuser I’d kick out of my house, nevermind hire him as president.

It’s an understatement to say our nation wasn’t left A Better People thanks to this president. In time we became a pitied laughing stock the world over.

Lately my small church groups and I have been talking about how to heal the great divide. How we might come together. I have no doubt we can, but not in the way we did before Trumplandia. Instead of facing head-on where we disagree (about Bush, Clinton, Obama) over the dinner table or in moderated town halls, we have to pretend Trumplandia never happened.

This means we politely change the subject if someone brings it up.

Because what I’ve failed to successfully convey in five years of posting about Trump is that the problem doesn’t begin with his partisan politics.

The problem is first and foremost him. His character. The buck stops there. Trump is inherently a very bad person.

This is the sole reason I won’t talk to his supporters about their leader. Because either A) They think he’s a good person or B) They know he isn’t a good person but they don’t care.

It goes without saying that’s not a foundation for a reasonable discussion. I think he’s evil. You don’t. Exactly how do we progress from there?

So if we ever want to remember how life used to feel in politics before Trumplandia, we have to at least pretend it never happened.

Of course we’ll never fully escape Trump’s blustering that the election was stolen. His devout see him as the victimized Chosen one (some literally) and Democrats as a dangerous bunch of radical lefty socialists (despite the President-elect’s clearly moderate platform).

So sadly our Trump vs Never Trump divide will remain a gaping wound best not aggravated into further oozing infection.

So for the love of peace with our Trump-loving friends, family and community, let’s stop talking to them about he who shall not be named.

Jeff Flake: ‘Trump Can’t Hurt You. But He Is Destroying Us.’

Trump Banned From Twitter. Faces Possible Impeachment

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