A brief flirtation with a parallel universe, where love conquers all

I don`t waste a lot of time with Could-Have-Beens, especially now, almost ten years after I left my first marriage. But music occasionally transports me back to a time when things were sweet, and right, and hopeful, and I could have never possibly imagined them going so very wrong.

So I sit here listening to my first husband`s favourite artist, James Taylor, singing alongside my favourite artists, the Dixie Chicks, and I can see the shimmer of a different reality out of the corner of my eye. One where we continued on together, living the dreams we once dreamed, and watching our children grow to be wonderful young men, together. There is beauty in that kind of simplicity.

When you are young and naive, when the whole world lies before you, it does seem sometimes that love will be enough, that it will buoy you together through all kinds of weather, through storms and droughts and long periods of conflict masquerading as stillness.

But somehow our hands, so tightly woven together, began to loosen their grip. First it was work, that took so much time and energy and spirit out of the both of us. And then it was kids, that, well, took so much time, and energy, and spirit, out of the both of us, labour of love though it was.

How did we begin to look to each other with demands and expectations, instead of love and acceptance? We both knew better, once. How did the love turn to hurt and betrayal, so much so that he has not looked at me since without a shade drawn over his eyes.

When did he begin to look at me with disdain, I wonder? Had I changed or had his expectations changed?  And for my part, how did I begin to see him as a wholly different person, one who limited and stifled my spark? When I think of us in those early years, I only remember laughter, and shared dreams, and talk of our future children’s misadventures.

But instead, I sit here itemizing the financial remains of my second failed marriage, not really wishing so much as wondering. Because I have been over it, again and again, and the outcomes remain the same. When I was small I drove my parents crazy asking, “Why?” “But why?” And now I drive myself crazy, asking, “Why?” “Just why?”

 

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Elephant Enlightenment, Dysfunctional Family Style

PurpleDumbo

Elephant Enlightenment – Dysfunctional Family Style

There are certain events from my childhood that have echoed through my life with disproportionate significance. The Dumbo the Flying Elephant Debacle is one of them.  On a family visit to Disneyland when I was five years old, I had no greater wish than to ride Dumbo the Flying Elephant.  But for reasons beyond my ability to comprehend, we had to wait all day before I could finally soar above Fantasyland aboard a fibreglass elephant with freakishly large ears.  To this day, I remember the sense of frustration and unfairness that overshadowed a day that should have been a highlight of my young life.  I was the precocious younger sister in a family of two children. My older brother was the perfect, quiet, sometimes sickly well-behaved child. In stark contrast I was the inquisitive, persistent, and rambunctious little girl with energy to burn.
That day at Disneyland, all the signs were there that I was not, as I have always been told, the Golden Child in my family. There was ample evidence of this that day, and over the years. But childhood in a dysfunctional family is often fraught with contradictions.  The public face of the family is there to disguise the dysfunction within, whether it be alcoholism, workaholism, or physical abuse. 
 
One of the hallmarks of the dysfunctional family is denial.  As part of the smokescreen created to hide the dysfunction within, children are often assigned specific roles in the family. For example, a child may become a scapegoat to divert attention from the behavior of an addicted parent.  Another typical role is for a talented child to be set up as an overachiever or “golden child” frequently paraded to the world as a shining example of what must obviously be a healthy, nurturing, family.  As a result, children in this type of environment often grow up to doubt their perceptions, having been told throughout their developmental years that what they were seeing was actually something quite different.
 
In my case, I believed I was the Golden Child because I was brilliant, accomplished, charming, and athletic.  I was told that my brother and I were treated the same.  I believed that the world revolved around me, because I was the golden child and therefore the world was my oyster. Except that it wasn’t.   The world revolved around my alcoholic parent first, and my brother, the first-born male, second. I actually came last. This was evident that day at Disneyland, although I didn’t realize it for years, because I was always told that the world revolved around me, and that I should be eternally grateful for my vaunted position.
Which brings us back to Dumbo the flying elephant.

So there we were at Disneyland. Early in the day I became transfixed by the Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride. There it sat, in all its glory, in the middle of Fantasyland, among other, far less trance-inducing attractions such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. I used all of my charm and persuasive skills to convince my parents to let me ride Dumbo, or one of his eight to twelve variously coloured incarnations.  I’m sure it went something like:

MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY MOMMY: Can we go on Dumbo?  Can we go on Dumbo?  Can we go on Dumbo?  Can we go on Dumbo?  Can we go on Dumbo?

Disneyland’s current promotional description of that very ride lends gravitas to the tragedy of my lengthy wait:

“Soar high in the sky on a fanciful flight above Fantasyland aboard Dumbo the Flying Elephant. . . It’s an exhilarating thrill that is sure to lift your spirit and remind you that, if you believe in yourself, anything is possible!”

(taken from: ) https://disneyland.disney.go.com/attractions/disneyland/dumbo-the-flying-elephant/


But for some reason I had to wait.  So, as the non-Golden Child, I toddled along that day to every single other attraction that anyone else in my family had the remotest interest in seeing.  And finally, after five or six bouts of tears, my mom and I finally rode Dumbo the flying elephant.  It was the purple one. It was the highlight of my young life.  My dad and brother didn’t bother to ride it. They thought it was too lame.  This was another lesson that I learned early in life: other people have the right to make you feel like what you want either doesn’t matter, or at the very least is stupid, girly, and not worthy of their time. 

I would like to be able to say that I saw all of this for what it was, and valiantly rose above the limitations of my dysfunctional family.  But alas, I did not.  I spent many years over-achieving and considering anything less than perfection to be a failure, and believing that all of my accolades made me the Golden Child worthy of praise and unconditional love. But after decades of watching my brother get preferential treatment on everything from deciding what restaurant to go to, to financial support, my brainwashed mind finally saw that (gasp) the world is not a meritocracy. And my family certainly wasn’t either.

I would also like to be able to say that I took this realization with great grace and aplomb, and carried on with head held high and self-esteem intact.  But that isn’t how these things tend to work.  Instead, I spent a number of years in crisis, taking responsibility for everyone else’s shortcomings, trying to fix everything around me, and wondering why I felt so empty even though I was clearly so very capable and successful. But self-esteem is often one of the first casualties of the dysfunctional family.  To the girl who is taught that she only has value if she is beautiful and brilliant and accomplished (even though she is still after all, just a girl), every failure is a near-fatal blow to the self-esteem.
But I did eventually ride the purple Dumbo with my mom, who has always done her utmost to be there for me, even though she knew that she could only do so much within the confines of her own invisible shackles. And I finally figured things out for myself, because that is what I do. Because, despite my dysfunctional upbringing, or maybe because of it, I am extremely independent, and capable, and resilient as all get out.  

Maybe I will even get a tattoo someday:  a purple flying elephant to remind me that, when the wait is over and I finally board that whimsical purple pachyderm, in the immortal words of the Disney promotional team:

“It’s an exhilarating thrill that is sure to lift your spirit and remind you that, if you believe in yourself, anything is possible!”

Happily is enough; Let’s leave Ever After to the fairy tales

boys at beach

 

Just because something doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it wasn’t meant to be, or even that it was never yours. It just wasn’t meant to be yours forever.

I said this to my son the other night after we finished watching the final episode of How I Met Your Mother.  And the funny thing is, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t something I even knew to be true until I said it.

How I Met Your Mother is a show that my younger son and I have shared since we both came to it belatedly about three years ago.  If you’re not familiar with the show, it basically ended like this. Ted spent 9 seasons looking for “the one.” He finally found her, but the universe only loaned her to him for about ten years before she became ill and died. Which, after an appropriate period of mourning and living and raising his children had elapsed, allowed him to see that his old friend Robyn was perhaps the other “one.”  And life went on.

With any luck, my children are learning things it took me four decades to only begin to understand. And somehow, I am beginning to believe that will make it worth the cost of the journey for me, which has been dear.  And for that I am beginning to feel grateful, because I often fear that my mistakes and shortcomings will scar my children as they have me.

It is difficult to give things up: loves, careers, homes; dreams, security, forevers.  Our world often lulls us into believing that we can have some things forever: your one true love, your health, an intact relationship with members of your family. And maybe some forevers are real. Like a mother’s love for her children, or one’s love of books, or the first taste of ice cream each spring.

I grew up believing in fairy tales and forevers and happy endings.  And I can’t really blame anyone for brainwashing me into it: that is just what I wanted to believe in; maybe I needed to.  But the seemingly innocuous dream of happily-ever-after is a dangerous illusion for the dreamer that puts her heart and soul into everything she does.  Because sometimes a person focuses so much on the destination that she forgets to enjoy the journey. And if that destination dematerializes in a puff of smoke, it can take a long time to rebuild the rainbow and a new pot of gold worthy of chasing.

My children are not only my greatest joy and accomplishment; they are also two of my greatest teachers. Somehow my choices and the universe’s sense of humour have managed to teach them, and through them, me, a number of valuable lessons. For example:

  • When you give something a funny name, it takes away its power. Just don’t tell the principal that we have dubbed the official school sanctioned portion of the Grade 8 graduation ceremonies StalinGrad, because I will deny it.
  • A genuine apology can sometimes take all the pain away
  • having your mom home when you get home from school is more important than having two parents that make a shitload of money (having one that makes a shitload of money doesn’t hurt, however)
  • A day without cookies is a day wasted
  • A job that makes your mom bitchy and irritable and always too busy for anything is not a job worth having
  • hugs can cure almost anything
  • If I’m yelling at them to pick up all their crap for the 2000th consecutive day, and I add “And pick up that blood!”, they know that I’m not actually angry, I’m just doing my Mom Thing
  • All they need to do to get Dairy Queen on any given day is to ask their mom if she wants to go to Dairy Queen (I don’t think I’ve ever said no. Why would I?)
  • They understand, perhaps better than I do just yet, that marriages sometimes end even if you don’t want them to
  • They know that Moms will always be there for you, even if you’re forty and suddenly need her to drop everything and come to live with you for a month
  • They understand that what they are taught in school is probably important and is probably right, but that they have a role to play in deciding whether what they are being taught has any relevance to their lives, and what to do with that
  • They know that they are the most important thing in their parents’ lives, but that both of their parents still have lives outside of them.

I am still struggling with this whole enjoy-the-moment thing.  But I am getting better at it.  And it seems that the better I get, the smarter my children become.  So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.