I didn’t realize how much history branded my existence until my first major relationship. As different of a person I was from my parents, I did not escape the patterns of their relationship. I was rehearsing the same stage moves as they had performed in front of me for the 18 years before I left home for college. I caught my breath after every realization that I’d inherited the neuroticism, guilt, and frugality of my mother. My lips clenched amidst realizations that I’d become impatient, stubborn, passive aggressive, and coldly analytic like my father. These are aspects about myself I’d like to crop from the image of myself. There is something revolting to children that they have become like their parents, that they inhabit that which they thought only belonged to the other. We’ve resisted theirs worlds, recognizing their grand faults, yet even after decades of criticism and rebellion, we are unable to escape our fates. We have fantasies of liberation, but history hugs to us like a shadow at dusk.
After researching counselors for my partner (who was diagnosed with chronic depression) to see, I finally decided to see one of my own. I used to think I could reason my way through my issues, but it occurred to me that if I was going to work on my relationship, I was going to have to first work on myself. Almost 15 months later, a year after my partner and I had broken up, my counselor asked me if I could delve deeper into a comment I made about my childhood. I laughed. Are we really going to start digging through that dusty basement of memories? I thought. Hadn’t I already organized the whole damn thing? Hadn’t I grown tired and bored with it? She sat patiently. A chill crept up my chest and released a stale breath from my throat. I haven’t thought about my childhood in years. How odd.
What was I hiding from? What was it hiding from me?
During all the years at school, my family was not something I thought much of. Aside form calling my parents and grandparents once or twice a month, memories and interests seemed to have just disappeared. I would become so preoccupied with the present and future endeavors at school and work that it’s as if the fact that I even had a family was lost to me. I was living in so many spheres or responsibility: teacher, boyfriend, scholar, activist, student, local friend, long-distance friend, and family. Each of these identities competed for priority and family lingered at the back. It was the least important spheres of my life, but why?
When I could not meet my standards as a teacher, a student, and a scholar, I stitched myself into my relationship and local friends for security, but the more my partner tore away from me, the more she tore at the string that intertwined my existence with my friends. My quilt had been ripped into patches, and I was left as a pile of worn string. Where was my family in all this? They, of course, were there behind me with a pair of needles to knit me back into their blanket, but it wasn’t a blanket I seriously considered crawling back into.
II. I love you Knot
Well, I tried to anyway. I packed myself up in a box and shipped myself home. There I could un-reel and -wind for a couple of months, teasing out the painful knots of memories that clotted my heart and mind. There I attended family events where the obvious was foregrounded. I couldn’t be loved more by my mother. My grandparents are outrageously generous and the rest of my family is very supportive. Minus some torn seams, we are close knit. Yet, despite all this, I felt just as estranged from them as I had two decades before.
It was uncanny being back. In some ways it’s as if nothing had changed. The same people, the same problems. And at the same time, we were so different. Some of us had gotten new college degrees, a few were starting a family, and others were deteriorating with age. There was the excitement of birth–the first great grandchild and several future husbands–and the looming of death.
My grandfather in particular had become something else. He was the same, but without much of a center. He had lost almost all the power of his sight, hearing, memory, and thought. It was a chore to talk and listen. One had to have an impressive level of patience. When you finished talking, he’d jump to a new topic and had already forgotten what you had just said sot that the next time you’d have to say it all again. Understanding was futile. Whether he had much thought left was difficult to tell, but you could still feel his warm heart. He cared and loved everyone. I watched sullenly as he procrastinated on his goodbyes. He talked at my uncle. My uncle kept nodding his head. It was a pathetic situation. My guess is that my uncle loved my grandfather, but there was nothing else to say, nothing else to do but nod his head.
As I witnessed this and my grandmother and aunt escorting the poor man toward the car, a deep sadness spread over me. Why am I so sad? I asked. It would have been a strange question coming from anybody else. My family is dying before my eyes. Lost memory, sight, speech… life. Am I sad for him, sad for his loss? Or am I sad for myself, that I’m losing my family, my blanket? How can I be sad for either when they hardly pass through my mind?
I’m crying for humanity, I thought.
I‘m sad for our fragile state, the decomposition of our integrity. Death was such an abstraction. I doubted my capability to care about the death of individuals. So I wept for humanity, an even greater abstraction.
Is this not more than a facade for weeping for myself? Yes. I weep for myself. I weep because I cannot feel for him. I weep because I cannot weep, because I am isolated. Alone. I weep from loneliness.
I stand here, an animal-machine witnessing the impermanence of my family, and I am powerless. I am out of touch. I can’t relate. I don’t know what to say. I fear saying anything, fear thinking. I just want to go, move on, care about something. But I’m almost crying. Powerless. Alone. Sad because I cannot love. I cannot transcend myself, my narcissism. I am not present. I am crying because I don’t care, yet I want to, but I don’t care enough to do even that. What a sad and pathetic person I am.
III. Childhood is messy. When I was a child, I liked to play with string. I would toss balls of brightly colored yarn across the room, watching it unroll, leaving a trace of where it had been before. After a few tosses, I’d wind it back up. The loose strands sprawled across the floor was sore on my eyes and I liked the feel of the ball full and complete, soft in my palm. But I could never wind it up quite right. Loose loops dangled down and slipped off the round surface and knots had begun to form. I carefully tried to pull them loose, but if i pulled too hard, the string would snap, and I’d have no choice but to knot the two ends back together to keep the ball whole. The knots were so tight that I could not get them out, so I gave up on trying and left the ball behind.
Our house was always a mess, string scattered everywhere, all knotted. No one ever seriously tried to wind it back together. When I lost faith in my family after each false attempt, after each night it was thrown across the house, I gave up and withdrew. I found a different ball of yarn to play with fabricated by my imagination. Now here I am, trying to make sense of it all, embroidering this bright screen with ancient, digital characters. A writer, a weaver.
The knots don’t go away, no matter how fast you run, no matter how well you hide, no matter how much you cut. We have left a trail of string and will inevitably cross its path wherever we hide; we will inadvertently snag ourselves the farther we run; and we will never cut ourselves free so long as we live. As far behind us as they may seem, they are the centers of our string. They immobilize our love, choking it off from breath.
To liberate ourselves, to liberate love, we must think through the knots, untangling string with sharp and precise thoughtfulness. But in deep thought we subject ourselves to risk. The risk of freeing secrets and the risk of freedom itself. We even risk knotting ourselves more tightly in. So perhaps tracing string is not the best trajectory. Perhaps we should fabricate new string where the last one’s left off seeing how far we can sew. I just don’t know.