March 22, 2007
My Guru, Aunt B.
One of my Hin-Jew or Jew-Bu brethren (the quote has been attributed both to Ram Dass and Jack Kornfeld) once said "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." I've never thought I was enlightened, but I have believed I had a pretty good handle on myself after years of working with inquiry. I'd like to attribute my (hopefully temporary) insanity to perimenopause, but I can't in all honesty not see my very conscious and deliberate part in the folie a deux I was living last week. Or, more accurately, the folie a une and that une would be moi.
My kind, innocent, loving, fun-loving and (for me) hard to live with 80-year-old Aunt B. came to stay for a week and I projected both "mother" and "child" all over her almost from the moment she set foot in my crackerbox-sized apartment. (Note to self: no more week-long visitors until I get a larger living space.) As she proceeded to take up "too much" space, make "too much" noise at night when I wanted to sleep, break things, almost break things, ask for things (I heard her requests as demands), comment on the way I do things (I heard her comments as criticism...and how dare she, after all I'd done to make great plans, stock up on good food, clean my house, spend big bucks and do without in order to ensure her comfort and pleasure—and, um, her approval and appreciation of me), I developed a list of shoulds and shouldn'ts that I never thought I'd believe the likes of again...and I hate confessing all this here.
I further confess, dear readers, that I did not do any writing of The Work while Aunt B. was with me...not simply because it was difficult to get a moment of privacy (I could have gotten up earlier, stayed up later, taken a "walk," gone into the bathroom), but because I was right! (That old-time religion.) Of course she shouldn't drive 75 miles an hour on the corkscrew-like Highway 17...or at all, if I had any say about it, since we had a parking lot fender bender the day after she arrived, she doesn't signal for turns, she doesn't look when she's backing up and she can't see well enough to park properly. (Not having a driver's license myself, I have never been a backseat driver...until last week.)
Of course she shouldn't tell me how to cook in my own home—sheesh! Naturally she should not break my $60 glass lotus tchotchke. Of course she ought not to blast the TV and keep the lights on at 1 a.m. to read when she's dozing off and not even watching the tube or reading the magazine (and snoring too!). When I tell her not to wear shoes in my place, not to wash dishes if she can't tolerate using the hot water and not to close the bathroom doors when she's showering because I'm very allergic and not doing these simple things that I ask breeds deadly allergens...she should comply, damn it. Oh, and when she chats with a very kind and helpful state park docent whose nephew is a dancer in the New York City ballet, where Aunt B. has a ticket subscription...she soooo totally should not say, "So let me ask you the obvious question...is he gay?"
How do I react when I believe these thoughts? I am nasty as hell; you could say verbally abusive. (At one point I told her—yelled it, actually—that she was the world's worst house guest, which really hurt her feelings.) I try to micromanage her life. I'm resentful, touchy, scared to death...and when I get scared, it comes out as mean and grouchy. I see her as inconsiderate, self-involved, high-maintenance, childish, not too bright. (Great turnarounds for me, especially regarding her.) I pretend I'm being generous but I deny her what she wants, things that would have been so easy to give her if I hadn't been resenting her the whole time. I eat too much, drink too much coffee, drink too much alcohol. (For me, one drink is too much alcohol; any amount affects my body and moods adversely. But Aunt B. loves her daily drink and I was "keeping her company." Yeah, right.)
Here's the truth: she said things like, "How long are you going cook that egg?!! I don't boil them, I heat the water first and then take it off the stove," etc. Is that criticism? Only if you are touchy like me and take everything personally.
Here's more truth: I don't really know if she broke the glass lotus; I only know that before she arrived, all the petals were intact; after she arrived, one was off, and her perfume bottle was next to it. It could have fallen off; it can easily be glued back, but boy did I give her a lecture about needing her to be more mindful in such a small space as this. Meanwhile, I could be more mindful and put things away that I don't want broken.
About the driving thing...Aunt B. shouldn't drive? Well, I knew that if I invited her, she'd want to rent a car, because it's not easy getting in, around and out of Santa Cruz without one. And I'd been in a fender-bender with her two years ago. Why did I say yes to this? (For one thing, I like being driven around, it's a rare occurance in my life these days.) Who is the one who is not mindful? (Rhetorical question.) Aunt B. should not drive, turned around: I should not drive...when she's driving. And, as my friend Anil sagely pointed out this morning when I was working with that statement, I should not drive Aunt B. crazy. Guilty as charged. (Although she never got crazy, despite my best efforts. She's amazing.)
When my clients are hard on themselves, I ask them if they were doing the best they could with what they had going on at the time; they can almost always answer in the affirmative. I am having a hard time at the moment seeing this for myself. Aunt B., however, took me into her arms on Sunday night when I was losing it, crying and mentally beating myself, after I'd been a total horror show all day and pretty much every day prior to that. She told me that in a few days she would remember only the good things about our visit: the giant redwoods, the two movies we caught in town, the show in San Francisco, the fabulous lunch at Chez Pannisse, our morning coffee (I make really good coffee), my extraordinarily comfortable bed...and that, no matter what, she loved me.
The following morning I made a little practice of observing Aunt B. without my story. If she were not who I say she is, would it annoy me that she is doing or saying this now? If I trusted that all is well and we were not in charge of this thing called life, would I be so terrified and tense in the car with her? If she were, say, Byron Katie, would I care if we were running late? Wouldn't I think it was cute that she was talking to me while one or the other of us was going to the bathroom...or that she wanted her coffee served exactly in this certain "high-maintenance" way...or that she asked "embarrassing" or "outrageous" questions?
I don't know what-all happened to me last week, how I could be so very insane, observe it all happening and not be able to stop myself. What I know for sure is that Aunt B. is a great teacher. As I watched her pull out of the garage on her way back to San Francisco airport, she bumped into the curb as she made the turn. My body tensed up just as it had while we were in the car together, speeding and tailgating and making sudden stops on curvy mountain roads. And then I realized whose business I was in mentally...that I was believing I knew best how and when anyone should die...that the entire week had been about the suffering that comes when we believe there are such things as a you, a me, a future.
It's a beginning.
©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick. All rights reserved.