Today is my mother’s birthday and it’s a tough day for me. That’s why I’m writing this.
It makes me think of Bushra Rehman’s book, Roses in the Mouth Of a Lion and the feeling of freedom and possibility that the story invokes in me.
The novel is a coming-of-age story about Razia, the daughter of Pakistani immigrants, who lives in Corona, Queens. When she realizes she’s a lesbian she is torn between the traditions of her family and living her own life.
In one chapter of the book, Razia goes to Central Park, for the first time, with her friend. Later she goes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, again for the first time, this time with her girlfriend.
In those chapters, I was brought back to the first few times I went to New York City by myself and with my friend Rolando when I was sixteen. I don’t remember the details of the trips, just that we went to Greenwich Village and there I found a sense of belonging for the first time in my life.
Part of it was that I was anonymous in the city. I didn’t have to worry about meeting anyone I knew, so I felt I could be who I really was without judgment. But there was also something about the city itself, it seemed like anything was possible there.
This was in the early 80s and the Village was filled with all different kinds of people. There were punk rockers, artists, trans people, hippies, people in business suits, and people in drag. And no one turned their head to look at any of them as they walked by.
But mostly I felt free. Free from the ties and obligations of my family. As if there really were other ways to live in the world than I had been living all of my life.
It’s taken me over forty years, but I now feel like I’m living that freedom.
It’s not the same as the feeling I had when I was younger, the feeling that came back to me reading Rehman’s story of Razia. Which is why it was so delightful to experience it again. That freedom had an innocence to it. A sense that I could run away and be instantly transformed. Or that someone would come and save me.
But I know now that isn’t how it works.
For most of my life, I felt as if there was something heavy and dark, just over my shoulder. An anchor weighing me down. A darkness waiting to fall. And although I’ve been working on it for years, since I got divorced when I was in my early forties, it is only through therapy recently that I could see how damaging my birth family is to me.
At the same time, I became aware in a new way of my mental disorders. The panic attacks I’ve had at least since second grade. The dissociation which made me feel as if I were observing my life instead of living it. It often stopped me from being able to experience emotions, or make decisions.
And the constant underlying fear, that kept me from taking responsibility for my life and reacting to it instead of making good choices for myself.
To gain my freedom I had to leave the family I was born into behind. Yet I have not been able to completely leave my mother. I call her once a week.
I know in some ways it would be easier not to speak to her at all, but it’s not something I’ve been able to do. My mother is 94 and not in the best health. I feel for her and a part of me still wishes I could be in her life more.
I was stunned when my therapist suggested the people in my family were triggers for the emotional abuse that I experienced as a child. Abuse that I still don’t completely understand.
Which is one of the reasons it has been hard to identify.
It’s not as if I can point to a single or recurring incident. The family is a system that I’m not a part of.
I have found that when I don’t have contact with the people in my birth family, I don’t experience panic in the same way. I don’t dissociate at all. I am confident and know what is good for me and what is harmful and trust myself to make decisions.
And irrational fear no longer stops me from living the life I want to.
Now I only feel that weight or sense of doom when I falter.
When I go back to my old way of thinking, to what I was taught. The idea that family is everything and will always be there for you. Instead of what I know to be true for myself, which is that for me family is dangerous.
While I was reading Roses in the Mouth of the Lion, more than once I heard myself thinking, “Run, Razia, run for your life.”
It’s something I’ve said to myself many times over the past ten years, as I struggled with the idea of never seeing my siblings and mother again.
The last time I visited my mother it triggered me so badly that I vowed never to do that to myself again. I feel guilty and sad about the way things are, and at times doubt that I will be able to keep my promise to myself.
But when I trust myself and understand I feel the way I do for a reason, and I choose to protect myself, that sense of freedom soars inside of me.
And now when I hear that voice in my head, saying, Run, Maria, run for your life, I’m not only running away, I’m also running towards myself.
Which is the only place I can ever really go for the answers I’m looking for. As much as my therapist or anyone else tells me what they believe to be true, I am the one who has to make the decision, act on it, and take responsibility for it.
I have made those often hard but good decisions to create the life I have now. A life filled with love, creativity, animals, and community.
Jon knows me better than anyone ever has and we both want the same for our lives with each other. We’re dedicated to our work and support each other in it. The farm and our animals are nourishing and a source of our creativity.
We encourage each other to be our best and true selves.
So I have more than just myself to protect, I have a family and a life that I love.
10 thoughts on “Run, Maria, Run For Your Life”
Beautifully written, with the complexity of the past and present interwoven. I think the difficult choices I have made in my personal life carry regret (for what wasn’t, or couldn’t be) with a strong feeling of relief that I escaped what would have been a prison.
It’s your art that benefits from the complexity of life and brings joy into the world.
I’m amazed by your life as you live it today surrounded by all the beauty of nature, animals and a loving, authentic husband. Run Maria, into the life you have made.
I can understand that regret LoisJean, I am glad you were able to get away too. I will run LoisJean. 🙂
I can feel the pain in these words Maria. It is reassuring to know that I am not alone in untangling mixed emotions about family even from a distance. I live far away from my birth family. For me both things are true. I love my family and I dread finding myself enmeshed in the powerful dynamics that had a hold on all of us. In fact I grieve for each of us, miss the people we might have been. Less reactive, less angry, less afraid. Yet I remain simultaneously curious about who we actually are. The older I get the more I recognize the family of my childhood as a tiny unit inside a huge mechanism of broader social dynamics. Both of my parents are gone, so it’s only my siblings and I. But it’s so tricky! It makes me happy to know that you have created a life with John that gives you a sense of freedom. That is worth defending. You can also miss your mom a little at the same time, yes? Hugs. Hoping you have a deeply creative week.
You seem to have a true understanding of it Donna. And yes, I do think it can be both. It makes it more complicated, but it is the truth. And what is simple about all of it anyway. Thanks for your words.
There are times when certain emotions and feelings come up particularly strongly.
Right now, the painful memories of one’s family seem to culminate! I remember times when I tried to avoid my family as if they were poison to me. I am now 90 and realise how “the poison” in my own family causes pain, distance and confusion… and I myself surely had to play a role in it.
… Again and again I keep asking: “Do we have a free will? Do we own our important decisions?”
I certainly did not want to “poison” my own family.
What Lois Jean says: “I think the difficult choices I have made in my personal life carry regret (for what wasn’t, or couldn’t be) with a strong feeling of relief that I escaped what would have been a prison”, is also true for me.
I know what you mean about not wanting to “poison” your own family Dorit. That is one of the reasons I never had children. And my first marriage was laced with that poison that came from me. I hope to do better in this marriage being more aware and having more experience.
Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
Thank you Maria, it means a lot to me to know that there are people who understand this.
I feel now obliged to write down my memories for some of my descendants who are very dear and close to me.
Those who cannot fathom this “poison” do not understand why someone threw away their “golden cup”.
(the “poison” found us anyway… later…)
I wish you and John much health and happiness. It is such a pleasure to read and follow you,
I know how that feels Dorit and Thank you.