08 February, 2010

UNCONDITIONAL LOVE

J.M. Fields was a discount department store chain based in Salem, MA, owned by Food Fair, Inc. Most J.M. Fields stores were built adjacent to Food Fair's grocery stores and the two were in fact connected, making J.M. Fields the first true "supercenter" of its time. Customers could walk from the department store directly into the grocery store without having to go outside. (Thank you Wikipedia)

Finnerty’s Country Squire Restaurant was open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch and dinner. It was a ‘…well respected restaurant in the area with outstanding Prime Rib. …’ The interior was set up like a country inn with a fireplace in the main room.

While not my very first jobs, which included selling flower seeds door to door, babysitting and washing pots and pans in the local nursing home kitchen, J.M. Fields and Finnerty’s were the two jobs slated to be my key to freedom. My plan, after graduating from high school in three years, was to make one thousand dollars (which would mean I was rich) and set off to live ‘real’ life. I intended to work as many jobs as possible, for the shortest time possible, take the money and run. My longing to leave suburban Boston, my parents and their friends (all of whom seemed so terribly unhappy to me) and start my real life drove me so powerfully that I barely struggled with the biological pre-disposition to over-sleep that side-lined many of my friends. At that time, I was on fire with a desire to ‘finally start my life’.

In a way, those two jobs gave me what I hoped for. And more.

It was at J.M. Fields, working the floor as a bathing suit picker-upper, that I first saw overweight white women behaving in ways that made me wish I was a goat and not a person at all. I didn’t stop to wonder why I personally felt embarrassed at their obnoxious entitlement. I just knew that picking up the mess-strewn floor made me wish I wasn’t of their same species.

As the first just-over-eighteen year old female hired to work at Finnerty’s (Massachusetts had recently lowered the drinking age) I was hard pressed to find connection with the career-matrons who taught me the ropes. Tip distribution varied widely and I noticed from day one that hip-swinging and coy smiles put money in my apron that catalyzed severe glaring from my trainers.

The third job I worked was so non-memorable that I have to admit I can no longer remember what it was. From these three jobs though, I did take two important things. The money counts as one. Although I wasn’t ‘rich’ like I thought (Ahh the cruelty of a rude awakening. Sitting at our family kitchen table I’d begged my father to teach me about money. He’d refused by telling me there was nothing I needed to know. I erroneously believed him.) I did succeed in making the money I believed I needed. Because – like all beliefs – thinking something is so doesn’t make it real, by the time I was hitch-hiking across the country, I had thirty seven dollars and fifty cents. and a conch shell from St. Kitts, which I believed to be very valuable.

The other life lesson I took from my three jobs has turned out to be much more significant. I often found myself simply pausing to stare in wonder at my customers. This was not the most popular employee behavior but it eventually gave me the information I sought. Watching a woman’s exaggerated frustration when she stepped over a pile of bathing suits she’d just watched me watch her dump on the floor, I realized that if I wasn’t careful, I’d end up disliking her a lot. I was under strict, boss-enforced instructions not to voice these perceptions so I didn’t speak them. And in fact, it wasn’t the not speaking that troubled me. What did disturb me deeply was seeing that I was capable of actively disliking people.

Whatever cherished notion my parents may hold about our past, I saw their unhappiness as hate. In response to this, as a small child, I promised myself, vowed actually, that no matter what happened to me in my life, I would never become a hater.

And there I was, nearly hating a sweating woman with candy streaked kids, and I hadn’t even left home yet.

At Finnerty’s the waitresses needed to help each other. The trays were heavy. If a waitress was carrying a full load, she needed to make a graceful landing on the bussing tray quickly or she was liable to either drop a six-person ceramic dish dinner (each with two sides in separate breakable bowls) or bust her gut. The same night I got my first twenty dollar tip, after a married male diner waved away the assigned waitress and loudly asked for me, I came out of the kitchen with an overflowing tray. Three waitresses stood like gargoyles guarding a holy vessel. Arms crossed, they lined up in perfect unison, making access to the bussing station impossible. If I’d not been in pain, I’d have smiled at the choreographed symmetry of their motions. They were perfectly positioned to refuse my tray. In the moment it took for my eyes to make tears, I marveled at their incredible, non-verbal communication skills. I think I even thought a sad ‘if only’. Maybe they could teach my parents what I’d so obviously failed to impart about communication, despite my best efforts and hopes. As it was though, I balanced that sucker of a tray on one palm because my other hand and arm were fully occupied holding my shoulder blade. Years before, my brother had accidentally dislocated my shoulder trying to pull me out of the highchair when I was a baby. Periodically, with stress or strain, it would pop out in an excruciating burning not unlike a massive sting from angry, disturbed bees. My back was ripping at about the same moment my polite “Please get out of my way so I can put my tray down.” was receiving its antique-like stone response. I dumped the tray, jammed my shoulder back in with two hands, noticed the women's faces when the busboy rushed over to help me and two others raced to the debris with appropriate mops and buckets, and, after finishing out the night, quit my job.

So here I was again, not forty eight hours after my first brush with professionally located hate, feeling intense dislike for these mean women.

Fortunately, both of these events happened when I had just barely achieved my financial goals. And fortunately again, they both forced me to learn something that has stayed with me always: Hating is a choice.

Because I do not choose to live as a hater, I have to be careful about what I do and who I do it with. I do not want to hate the world. I do not want to hate people. I mean, let’s face it, I was a committed hippie. I wanted (and still passionately want) to love everyone. Even the man who taught a group of us to meditate, and who revered Meher Baba and his words, believed in love. I believed him until he tried to force me to have sex with him outside the room while everyone else breathed ‘Ohm.’. He said it was important to follow teacher instructions.

I could go on and on but I think you see my point. I choose to live not as a hater. I choose to orchestrate my life so I can love it. I choose to work so I can come from a place of service and love. I choose to write and make my art as an honest observer, which in my world is a deep sort of self love and loving gift. I choose honest, loving parenting. I choose to engage with my family of origin in as honest and loving a manner as I can imagine. And I choose not to be an idiot. I did not sleep with the teacher. I did leave the group. I did not attempt vengeance on the waitresses. I did quit the job. I did not grab the pudgy hand of the mother who littered bathing suits like a retarded three year old. I did pick up after her, and then, I did quit that job. I have loved and tried and yearned and begged and pleaded and communicated with my family of origin. I have also concluded that each of us gets to choose. We choose how we’ll be. We in fact, while knowing there are many things out of our control that we do not get to choose – like the three violent rapes I obviously did not wake up one day and choose ‘just because’ –choose our life stance. Certain things and events are what I’d label ‘not-chosen’ things. All the rest of it, and how we make relationship to those things, are choices.

In case I’ve inadvertently offended anyone, here is the definition of retard:

        retard - decelerate: lose velocity; move more slowly

Do these things make me an ‘Unconditional Love’ flunkee?

I think not.

What I do think though, is that love, unconditional love and choice are all constructs that merit a lot of exploration. I’ve been racking my inside self for years about all of this and I can honestly say that I do not feel we have yet created language that is fully capable of both the open ended-ness and the complexity to put names to these things easily. Sometimes a body of artwork touches it. Perhaps a glimpse in a reflective puddle that catches an image that holds intense beauty and dissonance simultaneously comes close. Sometimes a story written with just enough hidden authority that it dictates the cadence and tone for the reader, without being controlling, almost hits it. For me though, I experience the narrow band latitude of our words as an enormous challenge. Never-the-less, this challenge is one I want to engage with.

I do not think that everything exists on the same plane. There I’ve said it. I’ve written something that immediately starts the qualifiers running in my head. All explanations and parenthesis aside, I do think that there are contradictory and simultaneously true elements that take their abode both inside us – as humans – and in the world that we both know and don’t. Out of this, I’ll state that something may be true on one plane, and absolutely not be useful, applicable or accessibly true on another. If we accept this basic precept, figuring out how to live seems a lot more do-able.

On some plane, we are capable of loving always and completely. No matter what. I can walk anywhere and be blown away by the immensity of beauty I experience in every spec of every single thing. I can breathe out and imagine my breath as a love mist dancing with the world. I can also, at that exact moment, be terribly troubled because although I find abhorrent the tendency to take a small experience and extract it to a gross generalization, given the fact that I am a trauma survivor, I am often frightened of someone, simply by the size of their shadow. So, do I unconditionally love that human? At that moment? It seems not. At least not on this plane where I believe the aspiration away from prejudice to be essential. And yet. Were I not afraid, were I to start up a conversation with this individual, it would only be with the wisdom of hindsight that one could decide if I were an unconditional lover, ‘asking for it’ or just generally na├»ve and lucky.

I’ve thrown out all of these methods for judging. They simply have no value (other than recrimination that protects the pronounce-r from having to feel compassion) and they’re based on what I call ‘faulty thinking’. I hope that on some plane, which is so clearly not this plane - where we eat, shit, laugh and make war - my awe and curiosity about all things counts as unconditional love. I believe this to be true. But here, where my feet are - which was so aptly taught to me by a pink sneaker-ed girl many years ago when in frustration I asked her: “Where are you?” and she looked at me in surprise and almost pity as she said: “I’m right here. Aren’t you?” – is where I live as a human being in this body. And it is here, where I am questioning what we call love on this plane, never mind unconditional love on a larger scale.

I’ve never been able to conjure up the feelings people say I’m supposed to feel. I’ve honestly never wanted to cut the balls off the three different men who raped me. I’ve truly never wanted to hurt my mother for her denial nor my father for his episodic emotional viciousness towards me. I’ve not hated the women who slept with my (now ex) husband nor do I hate the woman who chose to forge long-term relationship with him when he was married to me and we had two children. I don’t hate my (now ex) best friend who left me when my marriage ended and I don’t hate the people who’ve benefited from my silence. I don’t hate people I don’t know and I can’t seem even to hate the man who stole my intended inheritance. I’ve tried to feel these things. But that’s just not what comes. Hating these people is what I’ve been taught I’m supposed to feel. I don’t. What does come though, is an utter bewilderment. A feeling alone and isolated because I do not hate in this way. When you think about it, this is kooky.

Just because I don’t hate these particular people doesn’t mean I never will. Nor does it mean I don’t have huge other feelings. I certainly don’t love the men who raped me and on this plane, where right this minute the hand-sewn leg-bottom of my awesome overalls just barely touches the top of my shoes (right here where my feet are), I have no intention of trying to do so.

I guess it gets really sticky when we mix actions and intentions. When I’ve been snarky with my daughter and I say I didn’t mean to and I truly didn’t mean to, she believes me. And vice versa. But if one of the men who raped me said he didn’t mean to, I’d be doubled over laughing in a super mean derisive way. I know my mother has not meant to hurt me. And I know she chose something that became the core of my wounding. So she both knew and didn’t know. The difference floating around in here has to do with what I call: ‘ Naming. Claiming. Validating. Apologizing if necessary. And engaging in a reciprocal, respectful, gropingly honest interchange.

On this plane, I vowed not to be a hater. And I vowed to tell the truth. I hope I succeed. I might fail. Sometimes the speaking of these truths is so painful. It’s hard for me to put these concepts into words. It’s hard for me to risk vilification and/or hurt reflections coming back at me. And some of what I have to say is probably pretty painful for some people to hear.

In my world, it is ‘unconditionally loving’ to communicate, question and choose, and it is selfish and/or enabling not to.

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