Sunday, October 16, 2011

My mother: an anemone buried in the sand.

St Columbs church near the corner of Launder Street and Burwood Road looks like something from a BBC period drama. Dark grey flat rendered walls with an elaborate edging. A protestant church to be sure. It sits in the shade of Swinburne university, a lego block set of buildings put together as if by a three year old.

Is that why I felt uneasy going inside? I had been there once before many years earlier in my twenties for the funeral of the mother of a friend. I felt then as though I was sitting inside what I imagined to be a Quaker church, bare benches, no kneelers, stark white walls faded with age and minimal mosaic work on the high barred windows. The shape of a church but none of the trimmings of the Catholic churches of my youth.

It held nothing of the sanctity of a church to my mind, and seemed better suited as a meeting place.

I had decided to go alone. I had decided to arrive unannounced. I had decided to make myself enter this church where I would know no one.

I could be anonymous I thought then and see myself through the eyes of others: a middle aged woman, slight build, average height, broad Australian accent, educated perhaps, diffident perhaps, but someone without a visible past, without a history, someone whom people might puzzle about.

I knew that I too would be faced with the mystery of these people.

The woman who sat to my right did not turn to introduce herself to me as I had imagined she might. I had imagined from my childhood memories that people might greet one another like this, like the handshake or kiss of peace in Catholic churches, but then I remembered the anonymous bit.

Privacy is important. We were there on business. We were there to deal with the alcoholism of a parent, a friend or a relative. We were there to develop detachment.

‘Detachment’, that accursed word, my mother’s favourite and with it she once learned to leave the rest of us out of the equation.

She had needed to do so for her sanity. She had needed to remove herself from the life she then lead, to put herself, if only in her mind and imagination, into some other safe place, some place where my father could not reach her, some safe place where my father could not hurt or impact on her in way way. And in so doing she excluded the rest of us, her children.

My mother had needed to develop detachment in order to become more like her husband. Just like him, she could cut off her pain, he with alcohol, she with detachment, a cut off manner, an inward seeking, like an anemone buried in the sand.

You could not know the anemone was there until it raised its tendrils. Just the slightest touch to those tendrils and the anemone disappeared again. My mother’s eyes glazed over, like a shut down anemone.

As I looked around at the women in this strange protestant church I could see my mother’s eyes in them.

No wonder the woman who sat beside me, clutching her black handbag on her lap, tugging at the skirt she wore to better cover her knees, no wonder this woman did not turn to introduce herself to me. She had developed detachment, or so I imagined. But then it was possible that this might be her first visit to this place too.

She, like me, might have been a new person in this dank church.

I felt my feet flat on the floor and curled my toes inside my shoes to better connect with myself. The muscle on my right shoulder above my breast plate, the muscle that
I would imagine was my heart were it on the other side of my body, tore its painful way across my chest and, once again I thought, if I can get through this, I shall go to Pilates.

52 comments:

Enchanted Oak said...

I remember how hard my early meetings were. Now I know that both physical exercise and 12-Step exercise reap great rewards for my sanity and serenity. Best wishes.

Syd said...

Thanks for stopping by. It will get easier. The courage just to walk in the door is awesome.

Elizabeth said...

I have say that I chuckled, albeit uncomfortably, at the last line. I was squirming in my seat for what came before. I don't know how you do it, but your writing is so powerful, it's nearly discomfiting. And I always want to read more -- want to know this person, this narrator, this voice.

Rubye Jack said...

I'm afraid I don't understand the need for detachment. It seems creating a connection with others would be more imperative to peace. Oh but then, I can recall times when so exhausted that detachment was really what was imperative for the moment. A time to breathe. Regardless, I hope you find relief here. I myself have before.

Ms. Moon said...

Ah. I see you have met our Syd. I am so glad.
God, your writing- it knocks me down and picks me up.
And I am never quite sure where I am standing.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Yesterday's & today's - well-crafted pieces with a lot of atmosphere portending further revelations? progress? exploration? resistance?

who said...

it is definitely an uncomfortable feeling the first time at such meetings and I imagine this would probably be true no matter what your reason is for being there.

maybe the lady next to you was dealing with overwhelming unrelated personal issues because normally newcomers are immediately spotted and people do introduce themselves and encourage the newcomer to participate. The regular members try to communicate that they understand what it's like the first time a meeting is experienced.

At least for a few people, the newcomer is the best part of going to meetings (they experience personal joy upon interandacting with the newcomer. And not just because one of the opening statements reads something like: "the newcomer is the most important person in our organization"

while the principles and practices are all the same (or at least they are supposed to be the same) it is a fact that not all meetings are the same because it is the people you are surrounded with that make a meeting a positive and sometimes profound hour of life. If you find the right meeting that is a good fit for you in your life, you might find you go to that meeting religiously.

Maybe even rearrange your life to accommodate for a newer and healthier addiction. Everyone needs a crutch to lean on during some part of their life. And said crutches are not always definable as black or white in regards to whether a specific crutch is a healthy addiction or unhealthy.

This is because nearly everything that is supposedly "so beneficial" or even "necessary" in a person's life can be unhealthy when reverence is tossed to the wayside.

Windsmoke. said...

The first step is always the hardest after that you'll start coasting along :-).

Rob-bear said...

A difficult time in a challenging place. Not a comfortable place, no different an experience for me of being transported from a plain Protestant sanctuary to an ornate Catholic Oratorio.
And yet. . . And yet. . . Beside this cautious stranger, perhaps a place of new beginnings.

Elisabeth said...

Serenity is another of those words I had trouble with as a child, Enchanted Oak, only because of the way my mother seemed to use it as an excuse to withdraw, but I can see that it has its place and can be of inestimable value, if you can actually cultivate such a state of mind without locking out others.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

It takes courage to enter into crowded rooms of strangers, Syd. I know this all to well. Thanks for your encouragement.

Elisabeth said...

Sorry to leave you dangling again, Elizabeth. It's not such a brilliant way to end but following one's stream of consciousness is where it left me at that moment and so I pass it on to you. It is amusing to me, too. the promise/threat of Pilates still hangs over me.

Thanks, Elizabeth.

Elisabeth said...

I'm with you here, Rubye Jack. Why do we need to detach ourselves? I know in theory and in some places in face of trauma it's necessary to dissociate but consciously to make a decision to detach from one's emotions ad connections seems a bit harsh. Nevertheless, tough and desperate times can call for desperate measures.

Thanks Rubye Jack.

Elisabeth said...

I met 'our Syd' on your recommendation, Ms Moon, and very glad I did.

Thanks again for the introduction and also for your encouraging words here.

Elisabeth said...

Yes, Glenn, I do believe I have taken a leaf out of your book here, that of the unfinished ending.

It frustrates some and can intrigue others. I hope you're in the camp that finds it satisfying, however frustrating.

Thanks, Glenn

Elisabeth said...

You're right, Dusty, this need to toss reverence aside so that we can better appraise the helpfulness of any situation and especially to get a clearer sense of whether our participation in a group might be helpful or not.

And also, as you say, newcomers can be made very welcome or they can be vilified.

Immediately, I think of the hostile attitudes that some people take towards asylum seekers. To me it's a tragedy and a shame that we can't be more welcoming to certain strangers in our midst, but paranoia and a fear of strangers - xenophobia I think it's called - can get the better of us, sadly.

Thanks Dusty - Who.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Windsmoke, the first step is the hardest in pretty well any endeavour, including being born. The last step - dying - can be pretty tough too.

Thanks, Windsmoke.

Elisabeth said...

'A place of new beginnings' is a lovely way of putting it, Rob-bear. How fearful we can become when faced with such beginnings.

You'd think we'd learn how easy it is to adapt over time, perhaps too easy sometimes.

Thanks, Rob-bear.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

An excellent piece that drew me in so deeply I had to ask myself was this real or a story! There's a lot of emotion hidden in these words and, to me, the detachment she wonders about is there, in the way she feels and writes, but I'm not sure it's detachment in the positive sense (of being able to recognise deep feelings without being overwhelmed by them) but rather detachment as an escape (which is what her mother used it as and what, of course, any addiction is about; an escape from emotions-or something-rather than dealing with them)

A very good piece indeed.

Judy, South Africa

Jim Murdoch said...

I think this might be the church you are referring to near the Hawthorn Campus of Swinburne University. It could be any of a hundred churches I’ve passed over the years throughout Scotland although I have to say I’ve never thought to distinguish churches from chapels; they all look the same to me.

I’ve never been to any kind of group therapy. I would resist going too. I’m fine with one-to-one sessions and not shy but I don’t fancy opening up before a bunch of strangers. Yes, I know the therapist is a stranger, at least at first, but they’re also a professional. I feel a bit the same online. I’m a member of a few writers’ groups and there are those who treat them like some kind of therapy. I understand the idea behind a group like Weight Watchers where you all meet up once a week and reveal how much you’ve lost or gained but I really don’t feel the need to tell people how many words I’ve written in any given day or to confess I spent the morning watching back-to-back episodes of Homes Under the Hammer. Writing is pressure enough without having to say I never reached that day’s (frankly arbitrary) target. If people ask for help and I’ve got something worthwhile to chip in I don’t mind but I’m acutely aware of a talk I heard when I was young which differentiated between carrying our own load whilst helping out with the burdens of others. It’s like differentiating between wants and needs. A lot of the time we use those words as if they were synonymous but they’re clearly not.

I think a part of me is detached. I find there are things I feel I ought to be attached to, memories in particular, which have become loose somewhere along the line, but feelings too. I can trace its origins but not to any sort of trauma. When I got to take over the front room and use it as my office from about the age of twelve I tasted independence and I liked it. The only things I needed my family for were of a practical nature, someone to cook and clean for me. Other than that I found I didn’t need much else, certainly not company. My dad would come in every now and then and ask me to play whatever music I’d been writing – the music he could get, never the writing – and I’d entertain him for a bit enjoying the opportunity to show off but no one else bothered me. It was amazing just how quickly I lost touch with my sense of family.

River said...

You write about this so well, Elisabeth, I feel as if I'm in that church with you.
I understand the detachment of your mother a bit. I had a certain amount of detachment from my own children. I didn't know it at the time, but looking back I can see it in the way I taught them to be independent and not need me. I'm sure it had a lot to do with my own mum leaving us when I was seven.

susan t. landry said...

it's an apt metaphor, elisabeth, the anemone.

one of the things that feels especially valuable about your personal narrative is the introduction of deliberate acknowledgement into the hazy family history of alcoholism. i am curious to see how it made things different for the family members. i had a rather 'if only' reaction to one of your responses to an earlier comment, the person who proffered the information that 12 people were affected by each alcoholic, and your optimism that as generations pass, the impact could be stopped or dissipated (apologies for my paraphrase). i think that is unlikely if acknowledgement and introspection are not part of the legacy.
thank you for continuing...
susan

The Weaver of Grass said...

This is so powerful Elizabeth - I have read it several times and it makes the same kind of impact with each reading.

JeannetteLS said...

Oh, how powerfully yet delicately you touched on the discomfort, on the way one can use "detachment" as the excuse to break from PEOPLE. The whole thing. Wonderful.

I was lucky. While I felt pretty much as you did in terms of my discomfort being at my first meeting, the talk was about detaching from the DISEASE, not the PERSON. Detaching from the actions of the person when they were acting from the worst of their illness, not removing the love of the person.

And finding that was hard, hard WORK. But it helped me... until people wanted me to use twelve step program language, reading, meetings as my religion itself. Then I walked away.

And it's hard, too, when anonymity is a fundamental principle to follow, but you are STARVED to connect to people who "get it."

You handled this so wonderfully in your work here. I so love how you can do this. And I hope you are as fortunate as I was to find people who can help you find a healthier way to use the damned word--a way that suits YOU, not some notion "out there" of what detachment and grace and serenity can be.

Yeah. I am so very zen and, like, evolved!!!

I'm going to ride my recumbent bike now. Seems to me pilates was a fine ending!

Laoch of Chicago said...

It is scary to think the effect our parents have on us, no matter how old we might be.

JeannetteLS said...

so many people, when I first went to AlAnon talked about detachment and I thought it was cruel; but someone who had been there a long time went out for coffee with me after my first meeting and she said, "You can detach from someone while they are drinking, or taking drugs or whatever. You can detach from THE CRAZINESS and still love the person. At least that's how I always felt."

That was what was hard for me. Learning to love my mother but hate what she did to herself, and, yes, to us. And then learn how to walk away from the madness, even within myself, but still love her.

All of it felt uncomfortable and foreign--SO MUCH of what you describe. But it helped me a lot for about a year. I detached from AlAnon when people wanted me to accept IT as a religion, to read certain books and talk a certain way.

For me, it was twelve steps. It was community and learning how to cope while letting go of thinking I had to DO anything about HER. Her illness was hers, and I had to live my own life.

May you find something that helps YOU in your own needs... without forcing on you parts that do not fit. You write so powerfully, so beautifully...

steven said...

the first place is detachment. the next is looking back at yourself. then chasing your self so as to reattach all the small pieces. steven

Penal-Colony said...

Hits all the right notes for all the right reasons. Pray, continue.

Punk Chopsticks said...

Detachment: Gosh, I practically grew up with the word (and still am putting up with it) there was a lot of resentment to my parents at first, but after a while I came to realize it didn't mean they didn't love me. In fact, when you're not attached to anything, i guess thats how you practice unconditional love with no strings attached (pun intended).

Of course, detachment can't be mistaken for cold and apathy.

Kath Lockett said...

Beautifully rendered as usual, Elisabeth even though I also feel so very sad for how your mother's detachment cost you and your siblings far too much.

I also love the 'pilates' promise at the end. We always make those kinds of promises and rewards to ourselves in every situation, don't we?

aguja said...

The imagery of the anemone buried in the sand is beautiful and so moving. I could see it in my mind.

Phoenix said...

I think of detachment somewhat like a life raft. If you have no other choice, if it is your survival that is on the line, if it's detachment or die... then by all means, choose detachment. None of us can be in another's shoes and judge what we need to do to survive, to get up the next morning, to make it through one more night. At times life is an unbearable hell. I cannot blame those who choose detachment.

But detachment, much like a life raft, is not sustainable. Growth will not happen, relationships will not be nurtured, and no one flourishes under detachment. So there's a time and place, and it is meant to be a temporary thing.

For someone to use detachment and cling on to it long after the danger has passed... that's like living in a life raft, on the shore, for the rest of your life. Your movement is constricted and you never quite see the reality that you are safer than you once were. It is indeed, burying yourself in the sand.

Fantastic post as always, Elisabeth. Your blog is such a joy to visit (even as you tackle the hard subjects.)

Much love.

winsomebella said...

Powerful and beautiful. Refined honesty.

winsomebella said...

Powerful and beautiful. Refined honesty.

Elisabeth said...

I try to write from a state of detachment, Judy, though I don't always succeed. Perhaps detachment is not the right word here. Maybe it's more to do with trying to find images for emotions without putting the emotions into more direct words. It's not easy, and I fear I fail more often than not, but I keep trying.

Thanks Judy. I'm glad that for you I succeeded to some extent.

Elisabeth said...

Today I looked at the church I had in mind when I wrote this piece, Jim, and I find it was not exactly as I have described but it's not the one in this picture you offer either.

There must be another church further along the road whose name I do not know. Al-Anon meetings are held in St Columbs though, the one in your picture.

I don't always get my descriptions completely right, but as you say this church could be one of many here in Australia as in Scotland, and as elsewhere throughout the western world.

As for groups, I spend a lot of time in them. Different types of groups and my favourite groups over the years have always been writers' groups. I simply relish the opportunity to share my writing and to listen to other people both read and talk about theirs.

To me these days it's one of the most pleasurable activities of my life alongside the actual writing, which can be very painful at times but at other times is also exhilarating, depending on my state of mind.

More often when I write I feel neutral, neither good nor bad, especially once I bat the internal critic from off my shoulder. I know now that I need not feel good in order to write. I write in spite of how I feel. it seems to me the way to go, at least it is for me.

As for detachment, that's about the gist of it, I write regardless of how I feel. I try to detach myself from the process.

Thanks again, Jim.

Elisabeth said...

It's not so surprising that you were a bit detached with your children, River, as you say given that your mother left you when you were seven. It is a way of coping, I suspect with unbearable pain, and we all need to cope as best we can especially if we're seven and have no mother to fend for us.

I admire your ability now to go on, in spite of it all. I don't think I could have done so well losing my mother at seven.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Susan, 'if acknowledgement and introspection are not part of the legacy' then it is far less likely that people will make much progress beyond the damage inflicted by alcoholism in one shape or form.

I'm not so optimistic as to imagine that things can get much better in relation to our need for help from as many quarters as possible in this regard, if we cannot ask for it and take it when offered.

Thanks, Susan.

Elisabeth said...

They live on in us, Laoch, those parents of ours, however hard we try to grow beyond them, but it is not all bad, at least I don't think so. We get some good stuff too.

Thanks, Laoch.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad it resonated for you, Pat. It always intrigues me within the blogosphere how different pieces of writing impact on people in so many different ways.

Thanks Pat - the weaver.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad the Pilates ending worked for you, Jeanette, you on your recumbent bicycle. They amaze me, those bikes.

Don't you ever fear getting squished under the wheels of some of those four wheel drives that can't see small cars let alone bicycles, especially those that lie flat on the ground?

Enough said. I'm being flippant here.

Now more seriously, I'm grateful for your thoughts. The religiosity of some AA talk bothers me, but extreme forms of religion bother me anywhere, extremes in any form , the ...isms and the ...ologies also bother me.

But I believe AA, Al-anon and Alateen can help and if they can keep people sane and help others to overcome a destructive addiction then it's all for the good, notwithstanding the side effects.

Thanks, Jeanette.

Elisabeth said...

I like the idea of detaching ourselves to get a look at us and then spending time to re-attach all the pieces, Steven.

It seems a very Steven-like way of considering our human condition.

Thanks.

Elisabeth said...

I'll try to continue somewhere down the track, John from Penal colony, but it may take a little time. I'm not sure where the next burst of inspiration might lead.

Thanks, John.

Elisabeth said...

It's funny how we can read the experience of detachment in different ways, Punk Chopsticks, and, of course, there are degrees.

The surgeon's cold clinical detachment can be useful at times however much we might hate his/her awful bedside manner but a serial killer's detachment is positively chilling.

There is a time and place for everything I suppose, though not for murder. My metaphors here are getting me into trouble. So I shall stop.

It's good to see you here, Punk Chopsticks, and many thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Elisabeth said...

I think those promises we make to ourselves, Kath, are rather like efforts at distracting ourselves from whatever pain or suffering we must contend with at particular times. So I'm glad the promise of Pilates worked for you.

Thanks, Kath.

Elisabeth said...

It is a vivid image, Ajuga, isn't it? I can imagine bright red crimson tendrils against yellow sand and translucent blue green water. Quite a contrast to the disappearing tendrils under the pale yellow sand.

Thanks, Ajuga.

Elisabeth said...

And your comments, Tracy are also such a treat to read. You think so deeply on these topics and always come up with such vital perspectives.

I think the idea of detachment as a necessary life raft in desperate circumstances is wonderful but as you say its shelf life is limited. It can save you, a life raft, but it cannot sustain you long term.

Thanks, Tracy.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your kind words, Windsomebella. It's good to see you here. And what a lovely blog name you have.

G-Man said...

Elisabeth...
Your story was very moving.
Thanks for stopping by....Galen

Elisabeth said...

Hi Galen. It's good to meet you here. I'm glad my story meant something for you.

popps said...

Hi, It's Popps, it seemed fairer to have this part of teh conversation on your blog because right now i wanted to ask you about your photo.
It looks like folded bits of paper that you have added, or maybe envelopes - is it/are they?

Elisabeth said...

I can't claim the credit here, Popps. One of my artistic daughters created this image. As far as I know she superimposed peeled back images from texts over my photo, which her husband had taken at a book launch. My daughter wanted to acknowledge the disparate nature of my many selves on the blog.