Here’s a thought: Your kids do not owe you anything. If you’ve done the hard work of raising them to the best of your ability, investing in their childhood lives, protecting them from harm (even from yourself at times), owning your failures, and making them feel loved, then you likely won’t have anything to worry about. But at the end of the day, they will grow up. They will likely have families of their own. They will likely have spouses, and children, and jobs. They might have goals that are bigger than yours were (if you’re lucky) and those things just might take up more time than is possible to give. They might have values that are different than yours. They might have belief systems that are different than yours. And that is their right. What they need to do in order to live a meaningful life might not fit with your ideas. I think it’s wonderful when kids grow up and have close relationships with parents. When my dad was in his final stages of life, I gladly put my own life on hold to be there with him. I never once saw it as an inconvenience or sacrifice. It was an honor that I was fortunate to be in the position to commit to. Because that was the strength of the relationship we had. It doesn’t mean we always saw eye-to-eye on things. It means that we had a strong bond, one that was cultivated from birth. One that was consistent and equal. I hope that I am cultivating that same type of relationship with my kids. I hope I always have close relationships with them. But I don’t believe that it’s their “job” to take care of me when I am old. That’s my job. It’s my job to plan for the future, now while I am young. It’s my job to do that. Not theirs. They don’t owe me anything. Because everything I do for them comes from a place of unconditional love. Unconditional. Meaning that I love them whether or not they love me back. Meaning I want their happiness above all else. Even if that happiness does not include me. Of course, I hope that I get to be a part of all their joys. I hope they are by my side as much and as often as they can be. But not at the expense of their families, their jobs, their futures. Because life will go on for them after mine is over. I want any time my children spend with me later in life to be an act of love, not obligation. I want it to happen because of the mutually beneficial relationship we have cultivated throughout their lives. You don’t get to be in a “part-time” relationship and expect “full-time” benefits. And parenting is full-time. I do believe that sometimes children will go their own way, despite how great you believe you are at parenting. Relationships will change. That is life. And ultimately, it’s neither right nor wrong. Because no one owes you anything. No one owes you anything…but you. And what do you owe yourself? Everything. To learn and grow and be better. And do better. And strive for better. And I believe if you do these things, what you desire will more often than not be given. And the question of being “owed” something will be irrelevant. We get what we earn. And the work of earning, never ends.
What I want more than anything is for this world to be a kinder place. A more compassionate place. A more understanding place. Where hate and unkindness is not fashionable. Where love and empathy reigns. A world where every life that breathes in its surroundings is worthy of happiness and comfort. Where the word “illegal” cannot be applied to a human being. Where a jail cell is reserved only for those that cannot co-exist peacefully within society. And is governed in a way that provides every possibility for rehabilitation. A world where adults experience joy in the simplest of ways. Where status is determined by heart instead of bank account. A place where people stop to watch the sunset. Where we celebrate the successes of a stranger. And forgive those that stumble. Where we promote values and enact them in all aspects of our lives–not just the ones that are convenient. I wish we lived in a world where name-calling and insult was unacceptable. Where we comforted those who fear. I wish we lived in a place that was better than the world we have created. Where sickness and pain were unimaginable. Where a person’s entitlement to the pursuit of happiness was not determined by birth or race or gender or economic status–but by the simple fact of their existence as a human being. A world where no child goes to bed hungry. Or scared. Or sad. Or anxious. Or depressed. Or feeling unworthy. Where no woman feels less-than. Or inferior to. Or incapable of. Where no man feels like he cannot express sentimentality. Or gentility. Where no one cares about the symmetry of a face. Or the perfection of a photograph. Where desire to love one another is instinctual. I know it’s just a dream. And perhaps a reality like this cannot exist in this world. But oh how I wish that it could.
Today, I am grieving. Grieving for the pain and suffering of the human race. Grieving for a planet where beauty and wonder and pleasure must co-exist with pain and suffering and heartache. Tomorrow, I will try to turn off the grief. To redirect my thoughts to celebration. I will try to contribute something to the world that fulfills my vision of the sort of utopia I long for. And I will fervently pray to the governing energies of the universe to help me achieve at least the tiniest fraction of success. But as for the days that follow tomorrow, I can only hope. And be thankful that I am lucky enough to have that option.
Life. Somedays it is to be celebrated. Some days it is to be mourned. Perhaps on most days, it is both.
As I spent the day working on my novel, and drawing anxiously closer to completing my first draft, it occurred to me that my main character is Hamletesque in so many ways. Now, it occurs to me how quickly I am becoming comfortable with making up words like Hamletesque. But it works. Though I hate that red squiggly line that signals I have misspelled a word, I’m going with it! After all, today IS Shakespeare’s birthday. And he was KING of making up words.
Anyway. My protagonist, Sonny, reminds me of Hamlet. And after three years spent studying Shakespeare intensely in grad school, I’m sort of an expert. Though I use that word loosely. Really loosely.
I will never forget the time I did an independent study course facilitated by one of my professors who told me that by the end of my degree in Renaissance Lit, I should have “mastered” Shakespeare. Really? I thought. Is it possible to master Shakespeare? Luckily, another prof and mentor said the truest words possible to me: Shakespeare cannot be mastered! Whew! That was a relief.
And that’s what makes it timeless, folks. Shakespeare cannot be mastered, just like most other great writers in literary history. Why? Because there is always a new way of understanding it. We see things today that an audience may not have seen four-hundred years ago. I see things that another reader may not. Our responses to literature stem from many things. One of those is personal experience. When I read about Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, I think about my own. About my siblings’ and their relationships with our mother. About my children’s relationships with me. When I read another book about a son and his role in his family, I think about Hamlet a little differently thereafter. And that’s the beauty in it. That’s why it’s a living thing. All books are. *Note: Someone else super smart said that, too.
And when I think about my MC, I think about his relationship to his stepmother and the biological mother he never knew. I think about how that affected him. I wonder how Hamlet might have behaved differently in Shakespeare’s play if it was his mother that was slain, rather than dear old dad. And I wonder about Hamlet’s state-of-mind BEFORE the events of the play. What were they? What was life like for him at university? What was his childhood like? He wasn’t poor, like my own character. But was he loved enough? Did he receive enough affection? Did the father that he loved so much toss around a ball with him in the gardens of their sprawling estate? Eh. Probably not. And did Shakespeare kill him off in the end (spoiler alert!) because he had committed so many crimes at that point, justified or not, that there was no satisfying end to be had that allows Hamlet to live? Or just because audiences like a good strong dose of death in their Elizabethan tragedies? So many questions. So many different ways to answer them.
But that is the magic of Shakespeare. And why his works live on, in part. The stories, and characters, stay with us. They bleed into new stories, like the one I am currently writing. They both shape the new stuff and demand to be re-examined in light of it. Their universal themes make them accessible long after the ink has dried.
So, while I cannot say I “mastered” Shakespeare, I can say that I learned a lot. Enough to have subconsciously worked him into my novel, that has nothing to do with kings and princes and a stage overflowing with dead bodies. Though there may be some mommy issues and bouts of madness. And even a ghost or two. Soooooooo…Happy Birthday, Shakespeare. Today, I celebrate your contribution to literature, the arts, humanity in general, and me. My main character thanks you for it, too.
I was watching a home movie from my childhood, recently, and something my dad said has stayed with me for days, now. In the video, he was filming my bicycle in the front yard. He told the watchers of course whose bike it was. Then he said, “that’s my favorite person in the whole world. Someday, years from now, she’ll watch this video and I hope it makes her feel good to know that.” Of course it did make me feel good. I wasn’t present when he said that and even though I’ve always known of his love for me, it was awesome to hear his voice talking about me that way. It was nice to know he was thinking about the future and wanted to make sure I knew how he felt.
Working on the novel that is inspired by dad’s life story and watching those home videos from my childhood has led me to some incredibly profound realizations about life. I have learned a lot of things about my dad along this writing journey. And I’ve learned a lot of things about myself. And my family. Perhaps realized is the better word.
Memories are fragile things, I’ve come to realize. And when you’re re-creating a story that is based upon an abundance of memories by a number of people…it gets really complex and nuanced. But at the same time, those combined memories of a single event or time period really creates a bigger picture that is undeniably fascinating and engaging. Characters that were initially based off of a single person are transforming into unique entities. The exploration of memories is reshaping the life I have come to know.
Most often, I’ve come to find, it’s the tone in the sharing of the memory that says more than the actual memory itself. The way the memory begins or ends. The people not included in it. The repetition of the same memory. The pauses in speech as the memory is being shared. The song that gets played immediately before or after the sharing. So much can be learned about a person through their sharing of memories. Not just who they were at the time. But whom they have become.
Bukowski once said that drinking is a kind of suicide. Throwing yourself against a wall and sort of dying. But returning afterward. I think there’s merit in that thought. How many suicides do we attempt on a daily basis? We kill everything that is real and truthful, in about a million ways. We kill ourselves daily without even knowing that we are doing it. We drink ourselves to death. We edit ourselves to death. We think ourselves to death. We seek a route to unfeeling. We remain ignorant to seekable truths. We vomit opinions that perpetuate ignorance. We claim to be real, when in fact all that others see of us are illusions. We waste our lives censoring the real stuff, and we replace it with gilded monstrosities. We scold the child that speaks unpleasantly and praise the politician. We listen only to respond. We disengage from the world around us then proceed to believe we are experts on the world around us. We are little more than a contradiction. Somedays I believe that all of living is just a prettier version of Frankenstein’s monster. Suicide. It’s all suicide. Ironically, at least the drinking kind of suicide makes us honest. The rest is just a bunch of half truths, deceptions, and lies. Yet, we criticize the drunk and praise the gilded masses. And call it living.
What is the difference between happiness and joy? “That is an excellent question,” I said to one of my students recently when the question was posed. So, my class discussed a variety of ways to dissect these words and determine what they really mean. And then I left campus and drove home to my husband, four kids, and two cats…all the while consumed with thoughts about happiness v. joy. What is the difference? Why haven’t I thought more about this before? Is this even something worth questioning? Does it really matter? And down the rabbit hole I burrowed. When my youngest daughter came home from school that day and smiled and said, ‘I love you, mom,’ I decided that she was a good example of happiness. She was happy. She’s always been happy. Even as a baby. I would put her to bed at night in her crib and she would smile and coo at me until I would force myself to turn off the light and close the door. In the morning, I would go into her room and she would be doing the exact same thing, smiling and cooing, as if sleep never came and I’d imagined the previous night’s departure. She was always happy. Everyone said it. “What a happy baby.” “Look at that smile, she’s so happy all of the time.” And this felt like such a phenomenal thing. It still does. The concept of constant happiness is unimaginable for most people. I mean, everyone has unhappy moments or days, right? NO ONE IS HAPPY ALL OF THE DAMN TIME.
But what if they are? Maybe it’s possible. I’ve seen it with my daughter, so that has to mean something. Maybe she’s not happy all of the time, these days (now that she is 10 years old and pre-adolescent). But she is definitely happy 90% of the time, and that must mean something. I must at least warrant further consideration. Is it because she doesn’t have to worry about things like adults do? Maybe partially. But that can’t be all of it.
So, to go just a bit further down the rabbit hole in my happiness v. joy thought experiment, I began to wonder if I too was once this way. Is happiness genetic? Are some people pre-dispositioned to be happier than others? It can’t be based solely on life circumstances–I know plenty of people that seem way happier than their circumstances warrant. (Slightly judgmental, but a valid perspective nonetheless). I used to believe that I could convince myself to be happy. That I could “talk myself into it” so to speak. And now that I think about it, I still believe that. I believe we can control our thinking. I believe I can decide that I am not going to be in a bad mood, and then stop being in one. So, if that’s true…then why don’t I do it more often? Is it possible that I like the unhappy moments? Is it possible that I need to feel sad, sometimes? And what about joy? If I can manufacture feelings of happiness, then can I manufacture feelings of joy? Ahhh. Maybe that’s the difference between happiness and joy. Because I don’t know that I believe I can make myself feel joy. Joy is something else. It’s something bigger.
As I reflect back on my life, I have countless memories of happy moments. Everyday, I experience happiness in some form (sometimes small, sometimes big). But joy, that is something different. I think that happiness is sort of on the surface of things. Happiness is vulnerable to sudden departure. That’s it. Happiness is unpredictable and inconsistent. But joy is more than that. Joy is something you feel deep down to the bone. Joy is a coming together of all the senses. A reunion of sorts. Joy is a celebration between the body, mind, and spirit. So, if I believe that to be true…what is joy to me? When have I experienced joy? And how can I make it return?
Six months ago, my father died. I still struggle to say that word aloud (died) and prefer “passed away,” as if he were a feather blowing in the wind and not an actual person who was the center of my world. (But since I am already trying to define happiness and joy, I won’t digress with trying to define death and passed away). My father’s death wasn’t unexpected, he was in the final stages of heart failure for quite some time. Yet nothing on earth could have prepared me for his departure from this earth and the living hell that would plague me in the months that followed. And while the last six months, imprisoned in the woes of grief, could wrench entire books from my tired soul…it is only lately that I question the absence of joy and long for her return.
So, if joy is to return…then, previous experiences must be examined. What are some examples of truly joyous moments for me? Besides the obvious, “when I first held my baby” moments? Or, “when I married my husband” moments? Sure. My children and husband have undoubtedly brought me many moments of joy. But when have I experienced joy outside of them? This is something I really want to reflect upon. Do moments of joy have to be deeply meaningful in order to be legitimate? (Pretty sure I’ve felt joy with the help of some substance or lust-fueled encounter). But I’ve also felt joy in moments of deep philosophical consideration of the world around me. Are those moments of joy better than boozy summer moments with a stranger at some pub in Paris (hypothetically, of course!)? Maybe there is a hierarchy of joy. For me…it feels like my joyous moments aren’t concerned with hierarchical status (I guess I’m a radical). But I do recall some of my joyous moments, the longer I sit here and think, with utmost happiness. So….that tells me something. I have not given up, or forgotten about, joy. I’m not so appalled by the thought of it that I refuse to acknowledge its past existence. In fact, I welcome these reflections. That must mean something. It must mean that I am going to experience deep joy again. Because why bother with this thing called life if we aren’t open to experiencing happiness and joy? Or helping others experience it? I can’t think of any other reasons for existing if not the constant pursuit of (and transmission of) happiness and joy.
And all the other things we feel (sadness, anger, heartache, pain)…those are just the side effects.
I am messy. And way too easy going about important things in life. When it comes to work I am incredibly devoted and can go above and beyond expectation. But in many other areas of life I can be messy. I can put things off until they can’t be put off any longer. I can forget from moment to moment to do things. I can come home from a long day of work and choose to neglect laundry or dishes or dinner. I can take the easy road when it comes to those sorts of things. My car is always a mess. Sort of like my thoughts. I can get lost in them. I can spend hours just thinking about life…
And I sort of like it there. Lost in my own head.
I am not perfect. I am not even close. I wasn’t born to be the perfect wife and mother. And I have spent a lot of years apologizing for that. I have spent a lot of years trying to be someone other than me.
And I am exhausted.
I often wake up in the middle of thoughts of you. Lingering from the night before. On those days, your memory consumes me. There is no logical reason why I hold on. There is no long list of ways you made me fall. There is no shortage of others that have come along that could fill that empty space inside of me.
But still you are there…haunting me like a ghost of the past of “almost” moments.
In “Paradise Lost,” Milton’s rendering of the fall of mankind, we get a vision of Satan that is very interesting. He tells us, “Myself am Hell.” He also is capable of exiting hell (to make his way to Eden to tempt Adam & Eve), suggesting that he possesses the ability to leave hell. Why? Why does God allow Satan to leave his “prison?” Many writers grapple with this question, and I won’t dare to attempt a generalization that is unjust to either Milton or the scriptural text from which he is interpreting his own version of the story.
But one interesting thought that came to mind this afternoon while stuck in this metacognitive trance with Milton (and maybe God). I imaged Satan in hell–in possession of the key to the locked doors. I imagined a God who does not “punish” Satan by sending him there, but rather gives him exactly what he (Satan) wants (a stage on which to be glorified). I imagined a God who does not “punish” mankind with the fall, but rather a God who gives mankind exactly what it wanted (knowledge of good and evil–emphasis on “and”). Most importantly perhaps, I imagined scriptural text, with all of its power-whether you believe it or not-and the added dimensions that literature and literary criticism can bring to it. Most people can find a certain amount of beauty in the nativity scene. But what more can we take away from that scene when we envision the way the earth is responding to the birth of Christ? Milton writes of winds kissing smooth waters, mild oceans that “forget” to rave. He writes that the sun withheld his speed and “inferiour flame” as a greater Sun [Son] appeared. And throughout his birth…the sweetest music that was ever heard did play.
What more can we take away from the text, from the stories, when we envision Satan and his fallen angels, scattered across the earth, physically trembling at the exact moment that Christ is born? Most people can find a certain amount of beauty in the Baptism of Christ when scripture tells us that the sky opens up, a dove descends, and the voice of God acknowledges Christ as His son. But how does our response to that become deeper when in that same moment we have a vision of Satan—rendered motionless and without speech as he witnesses the event of his conqueror being baptized and acknowledged by God? What can we accomplish in the process of human flourishing if we come to see the metaphorical gates of hell locked from the inside? Whomever is in possession of that master key does not change the reality, that we are capable of unlocking the door and simply walking out. Of course, these ramblings are just a very condensed (perhaps unjust) thought that one could spend hours in the throes of without resolve, for such is the nature of scholarship…but nonetheless I deemed it worthy of sharing. This is the power of literature. It’s so much more—but for the moment, this is my feeble attempt to put into words the hundreds of thoughts that have held my mind captive all day as I was stuck in that meta state of mind.