Above my studio desk is tacked a pen and ink sketch of a woodland shoreline. “To Mother, With dearest love from Marianne” reads the inscription at the bottom, a Christmas gift my mother to her own mother. When I look at it, I think of the bond that my mother and her mother shared, and the many letters that traveled between them. Below this, also tacked to my wall, a huge paper is filled with a child’s water color of a figure and the words MOM FREYA MOM FREYA.
When my daughter painted that joyful pink and purple figure, its stick arms and fingers spread wide to give or receive a hug, was it an image of herself or of her mother that she captured there? The lines that form the boundaries of self-hood can blur. Who is who? What parts of me overlap with you, in a given moment, and what parts of you are responsible for me?
Misunderstanding, trampling the boundary between self and other seems part of the human experience. At least this is what I have witnessed in my own evolution as a human being. Not only between mother/father and child, but between lovers, in academia, in art, in business. A mother takes over her child’s wedding, a father tries to turn his son or daughter into the athlete he never was, a surgeon is overbearing, a nurse bosses the patient in her care, a receptionist takes out her tooth pain on the next caller. Every day, in 100 ways, we crowd each other, mostly unintentionally. How easy it can be to forget that every person we meet has a unique thinking and a singular experience of reality. Especially those we know the best and love most dearly. We can lose track of our sacred separateness – until a clonk on the head reminds us how we transgress. But only in a heavenly marriage have two the option to become “one heart and lungs.” Any other time, try to start breathing for someone else and suffocation is the only possible result.
Dealing with a person who is mentally disabled, who cannot speak for himself, invites the blurring of boundaries. As we head into winter I try to figure out: is Owen cold? or is it just that I am cold? Owen’s way of showing that he is too hot is to be cranky until someone removes a layer. Why doesn’t he just remove a layer? Given his tendency to take a tour of the patio mid-Saturday-morning-bath, even on a recent 20 degree morning, his mother is inclined to guess that his sensory system does not work right. But those who do not speak or care for themselves, even those whose sensory systems do not relay accurate messages, can still have a great deal going on in their brains. Wants, frustrations, fears. It is up to those caring for them to intuit needs and desires, guide behavior, and yet to respect their autonomy.
For Owen these past weeks of my recovery from surgery have been a trial I think. It has been both amusing and frustrating to watch Owen and the bulldog Trum each misbehave as kind volunteers and helpers attempt to take them out for walks. Trum stops midwalk to turn and stare at the person at the other end of his leash, Owen stonewalls about leaving the house, or walking down the trail in the woods. Of course Owen stonewalls for me too, in normal life. There could be so many reasons for his uncoopertive behavior. He could be voicing the eternal “NO!!!” but he could just have a stomach ache. I cannot take ownership of my child or my dog’s ungrateful behavior. I can only be grateful that there are friends willing to step in and try to shoulder the burden of running our family.
My job is to heal, something that is taking far longer than I ever expected. As I try to resume my normal life the smallest things such as the way I snap the sheets when folding them, or swoosh the water down the drain after Owen’s bath, or chop the carrots is rough on my healing armpit muscles. I seem to keep re-injuring tissue not yet healed. Even small movements like typing and writing weary the scar tissues there. Why is it taking so long? No one has suggested an answer. Maybe I am abnormal. But I have no control over this either. My armpit muscles and myself share a lot of turf, but I cannot change them. I want them to hurry up, they seem to want me to slow waaaaay down.
When I pictured how our family would get through this challenge, I worried about how reactive Owen might be to the changes, and what form his acting-out may take, whether he would make horrible messes for unhappy people to clean up. You would think that a woman who blogs under the banner of “embracing chaos” would be more chill about letting go — but it’s one thing to embrace your own chaos, and another to ask other people to do the same. I have watched people come and cook, and go buy groceries, and I have witnessed people come and take recalcitrant Owen for walks, and wash our laundry now for almost four weeks. It is humbling to allow those boundaries to be blurred, and to receive care. And it is hard.
We code events in life as good or bad, but how do we really know? An unfortunate event makes unexpected growth or relationship possible that was not possible before, or without it. We want to think we know, but there is so much we do not understand. What seemed chaos falls into order. What was intended well can be revealed to be destructive. The boundaries can blur.
I remember a painful phone conversation I had with the author of this painting, in which she was able to tell me how much it angered and hurt when I said what I thought was the reason for her past adolescent behavior. Even though the event had happened years before, it felt so good to her to speak of it, to cry over that broken boundary between us, to ask how how could I presume to know what she herself was still figuring out? How indeed. Thankfully, boundaries blurred and broken, like aggravated muscle tissue can be healed, with time, with rest. With apology.
My mother struggled with boundaries, a tendency to try to manage what she could not manage, or to control what was not hers to control. I remember her telling me that silver jewelry was for me, based not upon what I preferred to wear, but on my skin tone. For a while I did wear only silver jewelry; it didn’t hurt me. She only wanted me to feel beautiful — missing the fact that I already did. In her last months on earth I remember watching her advise a family member how to dress better, what category she belonged to, based on her reading of the book Color Me Beautiful. My 20 year old self was outraged and called her out on it in words I cannot remember. She did not deny it — but wept.
Wonder where the heck I am coming from about a married pair becoming like one heart and lungs? It’s better explained here by Curtis at Off the Left Eye.
Love, love, love your post. Much food for thought. Also remember fairly early in my special teaching career, I was in a classroom in an older building that had old time water heaters, and was the first room in the hallway. So our room was VERY hot, while the room at the end of the hall was chilly. One of my students’ mother dressed him in MANY layers in the winter. He would have these horrendous tantrums, lashing out and trying to bite anyone on his vicinity. Finally I realized he was hot beyond bearablility. I felt so badly that it took me as long as it did to figure this out. After that, I was much quicker to figure out reading my nonverbal students’ physical needs.
Janice , I have had many experiences where temperature or hunger discomforts caused deterioration in Owen’s behavior — and it is both frustrating to not figure it out sooner, and frustrating that one must figure it out I find. Special ed teachers and caregivers are my heros – you guys rock.
There are many wise and thoughtful observations in this piece. It made me reflect on boundaries of my own that I sometimes neglect.
I think of you often. Though your healing may be coming along slowly, it is coming along. Believe it.
Love Marianne’s picture of Hazelhurst. Beautiful.
And love to you, dear Wystan.
– Aunt Naomi
Sorry I missed this and did not respond sooner. Thank you so much, for your appreciation and the encouragement. Everything’s better when I can get to writing.