Friday, September 4, 2009

A Beautiful Unkindness

What makes us who we are? If Nie was burnt over 80% of her beautiful young body, and her face is unrecognizable to herself, and her life as she knew it is as strange and gone as her fingerprints, is she still Nie? If I have a panic attack and an anxiety streak that rattles my bones and my teeth and my nerves so soundly and cruelly that I mew in my husband's arms like a wet drowned kitten and cannot mother my children, am I still Maggie? The essential me? When my Grandmother Elizabeth was dying of Parkinson's and the disease had robbed her face of it's expression lines and her eyes of their windows, when she was trapped like an emaciated moth in the cobwebs of her old and broken mind, was she still Elizabeth? When my Grandfather M.D. came into old age like a lion turned to mouse, after years of paranoid schizophrenia turning him into an abusive, raving, hated and feared father and husband, when old age softened those hardened cells like beans soaked in water and his benevolent love was more shocking than a raised voice or cruel comment, was he still M.D.?

I never knew my father. I never had anyone to compare him to before he became the man I feared so deeply and profoundly I have spent my adult life peering over my shoulder, hoping not to see him. I grew up with his madness. Where was he? Was he in there? In that genius mind, that endless rubbernecking articulation of lies? Was that my father throwing fruit at the wall, screaming at Mom, a tassel of bananas exploded in yellow against the cream paint- he looked remarkably like a lion, 70's hair still framing his strong handsome face... was my father made of exploding bananas and fingers thick and foul as the cigars he smoked? Or was my father the young man my mother fell in love with, sweet and passionate and gentle and loved by everyone who knew him- the man he insisted he was, the same man who cradled a dying girl in the hospital and wrote songs for his daughters? Did he know these daughters could not hear his music? Only his voice, loud and vibrating and embarrassingly, humiliatingly, terrifyingly out of control. An adult male not in control of his temper, not in control of his mind, not in control of his life. That was my father.

Was it?

The last time I had a episode of what I think of as my ' panic disease ' and I suppose could be called ' generalized anxiety disorder ' or ' post traumatic stress syndrome ' or ' depression with severe anxiety ' or ' panic disorder ' but all end in the same room, with my head in my husband's lap, my face as I see it in the bathroom light completely ugly and unrecognizable except for the freckles and blue eyes. I stared at my face the last time round, in the flourescent light, stared through three days of almost nonstop crying and shaking and pills and looked as hard as I could into my blue eyes. Who is in there? I wondered. I looked SO HARD. I wanted to see what was left of me when I was mentally ill. Who was I when I was not funny, or strong, or sweet, or even functional? My eyes were smaller than normal, bleary, terrified, young and horribly old at the same time. Yet I thought, looking so hard my hands white knuckled the tiled bathroom counter, that I could see myself in there, the same Maggie I remember knowing, something essential, from my earliest memories.

I have spent my life testing myself. Am I my father? Am I my mother? Am I an entirely different creature, or bound by blood to a legacy I cannot escape? I have done cruel things and watched to see how far I would go, the detachment that was such a part of my life until only the last ten years marking me Observer, while the physical me took cues and took action, then stood back and looked up at The Observer: Are you happy now? I had terrible PPD after Dakota was born. I wasn't born myself- 20 years old, barely survived childhood, still in shock at what my life was. I had this boy and my hormones went bad. My chemicals went bad. I was a swamp of evil foul smelling things that must be brought up and exposed to light and air, lest they kill me. It was expose or die. I had to see myself for what I was, I had to find out. I did shitty things, finding that out. I don't know how else to live with myself but to remember what my life was. I got help, so much help, I stuffed help down my throat like a bulemic vomits food- books, friends, articles, biographies, movies, quotes, anything that could help me find my way out. I found out what Holocaust survivors know, what great psychologists and humanists and scientists know: we can only rise so far, human beings, in rotten trash, we bake, we struggle, we keen, we cry in our cribs Come Get Me I'm Not All Right- but if there is no answer, for too long, no hands reaching to our skin, no comfort in relentless misery, suffering and despair, we fall. This is why- you know?- how we say?- Only Human? This is why.

So I screamed and fought and demanded help, and I was lucky, because I had help, the right kind, yes I was a lucky one. I cry for those who have not been so lucky. I cry for my sister who was helped too late for me to keep my hands on her boat, to keep her from sailing past the horizon. I have not seen her in seven long years.
I looked into my own eyes in the bathroom's gross light, and realized I could still see myself, but it was simply because I was not sick enough. If I went further down the abyss, if I sailed past my husband's grasp into the rock, rock, rock of insanity, I would not find myself- I would not know to look. Where would I be, if I were not in my own mind?

Why do we love the people we love, and how do we keep loving them when they are not themselves? When a child dies, the parents have terrible odds of the marriage surviving. I know if the impossible happened, I would not be the same Maggie that Mr. Curry married. I would be someone new, certainly essential parts of me would be distilled and brought along, but still. Nothing is above the relentless change of nature, of human nature. Not our memories even, as my Grandmother's dying taught me. Not our bodies and not our youth.

It is the incredibly poignant qualities of human life that surround these truths and make an essential distillation where a madness may rot. We hope despite death. We love despite loss. We heal despite decay. We make love despite hate. We cleave, and we come apart, and if we are terribly lucky, like I am, we are tossed about the waves with tears in our eyes and palms full of salt but the wind blowing a thrill through our hearts just the same.

I do not know who I am, essentially. But I believe that looking, and demanding answers of myself, requiring a practice of moral rigor and 'sharpening the blade of the soul' as C.S. Lewis said of his dying wife's struggles against cancer, are what will give a depth, a finite and infinite moment that brings peace to the troubled human heart- a grain of salt, a piece of the fabric of the Universe- and this is the 'me' i saw in that bathroom mirror, the me I recognized- fucked up, so far gone! but still looking for a way out., still fighting. I know I have done hard work, the work of love, the work of life, and I can rest, even as my failures and faults try to define me, I refute their claim with my back to the wind.

Rage, rage!!!! Against the dying of the light!!!

Yes. Oh hell yes.
sarasophia said...

We are not a face.
We are not the dark holes buried in the color-ring of our eyes.
We are not the down on our skin.
We are not the cold we feel.
We are not the heat.

What are we?

Somewhere, in THERE---is a bit of the heavenly--
dust and Godbreath.

Close your eyes.
Wait a minute...listen.
Hear the song?
There you are.

AlpHa Buttonpusher said...

Beautifully written. Love how you end it with Dylan Thomas.

Beth said...

You’re a survivor – surrounded with love.
You question the past – a means of therapy and of escaping it. Those who remain immersed in it become lost.
Be proud of yourself.

rachel said...

I love that you tell the truth about your life. And even though you change, you're still you, and those who are still able to recognize you can because they've been with you through the changes, too.

Irish Gumbo said...

You have said it so well, Maggie.

The dark, nasty things we expose sometimes are part of us, but we would not choose to be those things, if we truly had total control over our minds and our bodies at all times.

We cannot deny the 'soil from which we sprung', no matter how far and fast we run. My Big Bro taught me this, in all his years of struggle with bipolar illness.

It is important, and your words tell me you know this, that we ourselves do not forget that these brushes with madness and fear may be part of us, but they do not define us.

My apologies for being so verbose, but I cannot resist this quote from John Thorne:

"The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once posed a gnomic query that went something like this: "Pierre has a knife. Every year he replaces the blade; every other year he replaces the handle. What, then, is Pierre's knife?" My own experience has given me the answer to this puzzle: my knife is what I reach for when I need to do some cutting. Because, at this point, I am no longer reaching for a thing but reconnecting to a relationship -- a relationship that remains more or less the same even if the knife itself has not.

....John's knife is different now, but it is also the same..."

Family and friends will show that they, too, understand and do not forget that we are our own knives, different and same. This is the transformative nature of love.

nkp said...

When you write like this, I don't know what to say...except, that you are amazing. Your words are a gift. Keep fighting.

SJ said...

"I have spent my life testing myself. Am I my father? Am I my mother? Am I an entirely different creature, or bound by blood to a legacy I cannot escape?"

Oh, Maggie. I totally understand.

Keep raging. You'll find your way back again.

Ms. Moon said...

I was thinking the other day that I feel not like an old woman but an old girl. I feel that way because yes, that essence of who I am is still so much in there, despite the flesh that no longer tightens around her eyes, her mouth, her chin, her belly, her hands.
I am an old girl and my girlhood was not so good and so sometimes I am not so good now. I have brought her with me this far and she will be with me until I die, I suspect.
But she has learned a lot, that girl. She has not changed but she knows different things, different ways.
Here is what I know- I am that girl and I need to take care of her.
You are that girl you were and yes, sometimes, she needs someone to come when she cries.
You use words with such power, Maggie. You have a huge gift in those girl hands, in that girl mind, in that woman body.

hayley said...

I really love and appreciate your intellectual way of dissecting the shit that goes on for us in life. I'll tell you, I just wrote this short story called "Same, Same, But, Different," about memory and making new memories, and how old memories and experiences only define us in the sense of history.

I think we are who we are as life changes around us. You, with your panic attacks, you're still Maggie. Same, same, but different. Hoping this makes sense... xo

Jeanne said...

Sometimes I am so envious of your gift with words and images that it actually makes me feel sick. And I like it about myself that I still come back to read and admire your work, knowing I will never write 1/10th this well, this true.

Elizabeth said...

I needed to read this this morning, beaten down. I had forgotten to look in the mirror, really look, and recognize.

Just.Kate said...

It's strange, sometimes my mind will be wrapped around an amorphous idea for weeks or months and then, finally, one of my favorite bloggers will lay it out and I'll find myself teary and nodding, relieved that *someone* was able to articulate it.

Hell yes. :)

Laoch of Chicago said...

Moving and melancholy.

Rachael said...

Beautifully written. "You" shine through so clearly in your writing.

mosey along said...

I'm gasping for breath almost, with the remembrance of the times when I've been in those depths where despair wiped my memory clean of who I am. I too struggle intermittently with sharpening the blade of my soul (such a beautiful and poignant descriptive). Thank you for putting that into words.

krista said...

do you know that the whole time i was reading this, in the back of my ribcage was a faint beat of
"rage, rage against the dying of the light"
whispered over and over and then there it was in print and i said it out loud.
like communion.

Mwa said...

I recognize that, looking in the mirror to see where I am. You are coming through loud and clear.

blondie-lox said...

you're amazing.

Bird Bath said...

your writing is beautiful and stirring as usual.
When I was looking for myself some years ago whilst struggling severe PND, I was taught to 'reframe' difficult scenes from my past. Those scenes have now become small snapshots of where I came from and I chose to focus on the things which make me who I am today. It has helped me move on.
But that time I spent squinting into the maze of mirrors will always remain with me. and i'm grateful for that because it has helped me understand myself and other's suffering a little...

Laura said...

You are beautiful Maggie...

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booshy said...

I think, if we don't test... We don't grow...or change...or learn how to appreciate things .

Ruth said...

This is wonderful. I love that you are so free to expose the workings of your inner life with the blogosphere. I don't think I'm that courageous, yet. I'm to afraid to reveal the real me, afraid of silly things like shocking family members or losing what few readers I have. I wish, though, to be as brave as you and really put everything out there, whether I'm proud of it or not.

Kudos to you for giving the rest of us courage.

DCD said...

I love that you rage. Keep doing it. And thank you for continuing to share your innermost thoughts with us, I think you are amazing.

Heidi said...

hell yes, maggie. hell yes!

Woman in a Window said...

Only the eloquence of you can tell me these things. And such eloquence.

Simply Mel said...

To bare your soul as you did leaves me breathless. You are stronger and more brave than you realize. Your eyes are open, you are aware of life's 'curve balls', and you do recognize yourself behind shattered glass or not.

You bring light to so many who sit in darkness. Thank you.

Sam said...

Am I my father? Am I my Mother? I can't tell you how many times a day I say that to myself - maybe it's a fundamental question all of us humans ask relentlessly - and maybe the answer is "You are yourself" and completely unique. As for the other questions you have here - some of them are too scary for me to contemplate but I appreciate your asking.

Lydia said...

Dear Maggie,
This Buddy Holly video is for you!

(Your feelings about your father are very much like mine for mine. I consider my mother's greatest gift to me was that she left him to save me when I was three weeks old, in spite of her fevered love for the man.)

The Girl said...

Oh hell yes, indeed. You give me goosebumps, Maggie.

bblissful said...

Thank you, Maggie, for giving us your voice, for linking arms with us, and for shoring us up when it's so badly needed. Never stop raging. Never stop writing.
xx

Barrie said...

I think we're always a work in progress. And sometimes I like this idea. But sometimes I don't.

Katy said...

I love this - I need to get the rage - to find my way back to who I am - out of the 'vortex' of wife, mum, daughter, etc. It was very beautifully written (as always) and very timely for me!

jb said...

Maggie May you blow my mind. I agree with mel..."You bring light to so many who sit in darkness."

I know that I come back over and over because your words give me the strength and the courage to keep writing. I can never write as well as you but I am going to give it all I got thanks to you. You truly inspire me Maggie and I hope that someday I find a beautiful, generous, kind and intelligent women like you to love until the end of time.

With Great Love
jbxox,

anymommy said...

I feel like I see you so clearly in your writing. Astonishingly clearly.

Lora said...

100 yeses to all of this.

The Girl said...

Maggie! I'm getting all of your blog comments in my email inbox -- what the heck?

Phoenix said...

This is gorgeous. So beautiful, and haunting, as I see your life echoed in mine. I grew up dodging the electricity in the air that crackled when my father came home, knowing that a storm was brewing. I am very good, even know, at catching even the slightest change in someone's mood, and it will be a long, long time before I relax around truly unpredictable people or let down my guard when someone picks up a bottle of alcohol.

So glad you stopped by my blog for a visit... and I'm so glad I stopped by yours to thank you and wound up feeling like I've made a new friend I've known for years :)

Also: My Doorbell is possibly the most perfect song ever.

Bee said...

Just know that I am reading; it is so much that you write, Maggie.

Heidi said...

This is strong and raw and pure. It's beautiful.

Lola said...

I was feeling like I lost myself lately, feeling old and ugly, anxious and cranky. Stepping away from my blog and getting lots done around here helped quite a bit, as did riding a bunch of scary roller coasters, but I'm glad I came to read this.

Incredible, as always!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

I just discovered your blog through Woman in a Window. I'll be back.

The Things We Carried said...

Here from Woman in a Window. I will be back. Well worth returning.

Elaine said...

Here fom Woman in a Window, too. I'll definitely be back.

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