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Putting on a Show

So it happened – someone from my family found this blog.

A friend of mine ran a portion of one of my entries on her online magazine a few months ago. It was published anonymously, just the like the blog, though it ran with a picture of me as a child.

Recently, the same friend published a short story of mine. It ran with my name and I posted the link on Facebook, having forgotten about the blog entry that linked here.

One of my younger cousins, Larissa, is my friend on Facebook, and she was nice enough to read the story. She looked through the rest of the magazine and found the picture of me, and then she found everything else. When she emailed me to say she found the blog, I thought I might throw up all over my keyboard. 

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— 2 years ago with 10 notes
#longreads  #family  #grief 
The Reply

So I heard back from “my father’s mistress” and…well, you’ll see. She seems very cool and thoughtful and open-minded. The email I sent her had no subject (because what the hell could I say?) but the subject of her reply was “Peoples’ lives and our narratives about them.” I was like, aaaaaaand I love you.

I’m still processing this, both because there’s a lot to process and I’m confused, and because I’m in Asia now and so jet-lagged I’m about two seconds away from passing out.

I welcome your initiative to contact me. It’s not a problem at all. I would like to have a conversation with you about your dad, who was a good friend and mentor.

When your dad died in the car accident in Ukraine I was 24 years old, just out of graduate school.

I met your dad at an art gallery. It turns out we both loved the visual arts and thus started a friendship that centered around exploring the turbulent cultural life that was unfolding in early post-communist Ukraine. He was an enthusiastic buyer contemporary art and was well connected. I was thrilled to come along and absorb the atmosphere. I was flattered that he would want to take me along.

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— 2 years ago with 9 notes
#long reads  #letters  #dad  #dads  #grief  #writing 
B+’s and Bad Habits

I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to write anything, but in between my all consuming, last-minute-class-planning-and-student-paper-reading, and my related but useless empty-headed-wall-staring-or-drinking, I found a little time to think about this project. What I mean to say is, I thought about it without meaning to, while simultaneously staring at walls or strangers on the subway.

I didn’t want this project to be cathartic. I don’t think the need for catharsis is a reason to write, and I don’t like reading work that’s reaching for it. However, I seem to have achieved some anyway. Since starting this blog, I’m less attached to my original narrative about my parents—a little less “poor me.” I never thought about my parents much, but now I think about them even less. When I do, I don’t feel much friction. While I’m sure that sounds fucked up to some people, I think it’s a good thing. When I used to think about my parents, it was usually through subconscious connections or a need to “work something out.”  The fact that they’re not bubbling up as often must mean I’m not struggling as much with what happened. 

I was telling a friend about this project on Friday night, which was random because I’m not talking about it with anyone. We were talking about our own lives, our false starts and distractions. He’s recently married and finding it hard to stay faithful; I’m in a totally committed relationship but scared of actual marriage. I brought up this project because what happened to my parent’s seemed relevant to our conversation. I thought we could learn something from them, and I told him what I’m discovering.

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— 2 years ago with 7 notes
#dad  #dead parents  #long reads  #mom  #writing  #grief 
Maybe I am a Terrible Daughter

In her memoir “The Long Goodbye,” Meghan O’Rourke suggests that grief can be isolating because our culture is “nervous around death.” We don’t have rituals that govern it, or a shared language to discuss it, so it’s hard to even know what it means to grieve. I know she’s right, but only because that’s what I’ve witnessed or been told. That hasn’t been my experience at all. 

It is true that many people don’t have access to rituals other than the standard trifecta of wakes, funerals and burials. And for people such as myself, even these have little meaning because they are usually framed by a religion like Catholicism, which offers me nothing I want to take.

My boyfriend’s grandmother died last week, so I recently participated in all of these rituals. We spent Sunday at the wake, and Monday at the funeral and burial. An additional gloom hung over the events because the one-year anniversary of his father’s death was the following weekend. Not only were people remembering where they had been a year ago, but they knew they’d be back in church again shortly.

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— 2 years ago with 4 notes
#Meghan O'Rourke  #fathers  #funerals  #grief  #mothers  #long reads  #writing 
Ringabell Rides Again

I saw the shaman on Friday. I’m not ready to refer to him as my shaman. I don’t think I’ll ever be/kind of hope I never am.  Is talking about your shaman better or worse than talking about your therapist?

It was a pretty low-key meeting. I told him I felt better after the last session, and it’s  true. I feel lighter, more positive and confident. It could be psychosomatic, but I’m still confused about what happened and not totally ready to believe it, so you think that would work against me.  I’ve also already done a lot of trippy, alternative things over the years, but nothing else had such an immediate, positive effect as this brother-spirit-removal. It wasn’t even the first time I’ve had evil entities removed from my aura. It wasn’t even the second! But it was the first time it “worked.” The German woman who performed those cleansings years ago seemed perfectly competent, but she must have been asleep at the wheel if she managed to miss my dead brother. The German wasn’t a total wash, though. She looked at a picture of my intensely possessive boyfriend and told me he was cursed, which was totally believable and illuminating. 

The shaman and I spent most of our time talking about my creative projects and how I’m going to have the life that I want. In retrospect, this session was a little more life-coachy than shamanistic. (That’s just a guess—I’ve never seen a life coach. Even I draw the line somewhere.)  I tried to pry some information out of him. I wasn’t sure what was next in terms of my brother’s spirit—was he gone forever? Did I have to worry about him coming back? The shaman didn’t answer my questions; he just nodded and looked at me. I didn’t pay enough attention when it happened, but now that I’m thinking about it I’m annoyed. I mean, I need to know this stuff, right?

Later on in the conversation he asked me if I ever had an imaginary friend.  I can’t remember why—maybe we were talking about creativity and magic? I told him I did when I was four or five years old. And her name was … Ringabell.

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— 2 years ago with 2 notes
#death  #grief  #shamanism  #brothers  #imaginary friends 
What to Do

When I started this project, I thought my main struggle would be with the availability of information. There are only so many letters, photographs and memories, after all. But this hasn’t been a problem. The real problem is what I’m doing with the information I’m getting. If I want to understand my parents, I have to be open to understanding them, and it turns out I’m not. I’m stubborn and attached to my narrative and my original impressions of them. I decided a long time ago that my parents had a bad marriage and they were unhappy. When I come across information that tells me otherwise, I experience intense physical and cognitive dissonance. My brain hardens. My screen goes blank. Every cell of my body says “Nope.”

I’ll try out phrases like, “My parents were really in love, at least for a while”—which is something their early letters seem to suggest—but it just sounds ridiculous, like I’m making it up. What if I made my version up? What if both options are correct? If I’m not willing to really learn something or change my ideas, I might as well just cry into the pages of a composition notebook in the privacy of my own bedroom, because this has all been for naught.

I’ve got two theories about why it’s so difficult to accept new information about my parents. One is that there’s just some serious rewiring that needs to occur for me to change my mind. It’s a big shift. The other idea is that finding information that contradicts my assumptions is actually more painful than finding information that supports them. Because you know what? If my parents were happy, in love, having fun and accomplishing what they dreamed, it’s sad that they fell out of love and life’s complications got the best of them. It is sad. It is so really fucking sad that when I think about it I am filled with grief, and a little bit of terror. I think that’s why I resist the shift in perspective—that would give me something to mourn. I’m still not mourning their disappearance from my life, but sometimes what happened to me doesn’t seem nearly as bad as what happened to them (and between them). I HATE that this happened to them, and I hate that it can happen to anyone. At times, falling out of love, or waking up in the middle of a life that you didn’t want, feels like the saddest thing I can think of.

I could be wrong. Maybe there were problems from the start. Maybe my mom saw marriage to my father as a solid way out of her regular life, and that’s actually what he ended up being. Maybe he was always a short-tempered dick and was just good at hiding it until kids came along. But those sad stories almost seem comforting compared to the ones I may be discovering, which are ones I already knew, but had never applied to my own parents. Life can change you, and you can’t always change yourself.

— 2 years ago with 8 notes
#dad  #families  #grief  #long reads  #love  #mom  #parents 

I’ve spent plenty of time discussing my parents’ shortcomings here, but I haven’t given them much credit for their, um, lively sense of humor.

Sometimes they were very funny. They would not find me posting these pictures funny at all.

— 2 years ago with 3 notes
#mom  #dad  #grief  #funny pictures  #family photos 
Grief and Not Grief

I’ve been focusing on my brother’s death a lot here recently. Of course, a shaman did just tell me my brother was…I’m still not sure how to say it. With me? Following me? Fucking with me?

I never really understood the role that his death played in my family, and going over my mother’s letters and notes—even talking to my aunt— taught me it was much bigger than I understood or imagined. I’ve also realized I’m bizarrely steeled against grief, so I’m not great at understanding other people’s experience with it. A few years ago, when I heard the news that my best friend’s schizophrenic sister committed suicide, the first thing I thought was that it was probably for the best. Her sister’s illness had put her entire family (and particularly her) through so much. But when I actually said that out loud to someone, they looked at me like I was crazy. My friend and her family probably weren’t taking such a practical approach to their loss, but the fact that I couldn’t understand why they weren’t a little relieved said a lot about me. 

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— 2 years ago with 4 notes
#alcoholism  #death  #grief  #mom  #mothers  #long reads  #writing 
Which Versions of Your Parents Should You Love?

I recently assigned bell hooks’ essay “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” from her 1995 collection Art on my Mind: Visual Politics, to my academic writing class. The essay is about “the place of the visual in black life—the importance of photography,” particularly the family portraits and snapshots that adorned the walls of African-American homes before racial integration. hooks believes these images offered a way for black people to see themselves differently “than the dominant culture” and that they were  “a critical intervention, a disruption of white control over black images.”

It’s a really interesting essay. My students weren’t crazy about it, but it prompted a good discussion. hooks frames her essays with stories of her personal relationship to photography, which enriches and complicates her argument. It’s her personal story that I want to talk about. She begins by describing finding a powerful snapshot of her father that her sister “possessed”—a picture hooks had never even seen until she found it displayed in her sister’s house.

“In this snapshot,” she writes, “he is standing by a pool table. The look on his face is confident, seductive cool—a look we rarely saw growing up…There is such boldness, such fierce openness in the way he faces the camera. This snapshot was taken before marriage, before us, his seven children, before our presence in his life forced him to leave behind the carefree masculine identity this pose conveys.”

hooks was fascinated by the photo, and, in a sense, seduced by the intimacy it seemed to offer. She says, “Standing before this snapshot, I come closer to the cold, distant, dark man who is my father, closer than I can ever come in real life. Not always able to love him there, I am sure I can love this version of him…” Later she adds, “I want to rescue and preserve this image of our father, not let it be forgotten. It allows me to understand him, provides a way for me to know him that makes it possible to love him again, despite all the other images, the ones that stand in the way of love.”

Finding old photographs of your parents, especially ones that are B.Y—before you—can be exhilarating. It’s probably some sort of rite of passage, and probably one that gets a lot of page time in memoirs. I haven’t read enough memoirs to know, though I’m trying to change that. (I just read Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss. Amazing and brutal. I can’t remember if there’s a “picture scene” in it.)

I assume most people who are close to their parents have more delightful experiences when looking at old photos. Look how awesome/terrible mom dressed! Look at dad’s beard! Etc., etc. But when you’re not close to your parents, it’s easy to become confused when you see a side of them in a photo that seems impossible given your experience. And while I admire hooks for being open to what is essentially a new relationship with her father, I’m struggling to do the same.

When I first started this project I wanted to get to know my parents, maybe even find a way to miss them. I’ve definitely lost sight of that goal at times, but it’s supposed to remain a sort of North Star.  And I am getting to know my parents, learning things about them I knew nothing about. Their correspondences, to each other and to friends, have affected me far more than the photographs I’ve found. My father’s eloquent, loving letters to my mother reveal a side of him that I never could have imagined. I’m so happy to have these letters, but really, they’re also kind of a mind fuck.

The problem is, knowing my parents in this new way requires a tectonic mental shift—and it’s one I’ve been resisting. hooks makes it sound easy and tidy, but I’m sure it wasn’t, and I find myself intimidated by her grace. It’s one thing to appreciate a new “version” of a parent, and it’s another to be able to love it. Love is…such a strong word.

What is the correct or “true” version of a parent? Is it the one you experienced for years, one that you can substantiate with personal experience (which could be considered evidence) or is it the photograph or the letter that upends it all? The fact hooks would allow these versions to exist together, or have one to replace the other, shows that she invites another version, right? If you’re not inviting, does that mean you’re denying the truth?

It’s hard for me to let go of my original ideas about my parents. The letters my father wrote my mom are amazing, but also creepy and overdramatic—and not just because it’s gross to think of my parents in certain ways. I read dominance and insecurity into his longing for my mother. I wonder if I am seeing shades of his controlling nature. I wonder if my mother was in Europe not to learn German, but to get away from him.

Similarly, when I see pictures of my parents where they seem in love, I wonder if either of them are faking it (particularly my mother). Are they smiling but thinking, “What the hell am I doing?”

I second-guess all of these documents because so much of my experience contradicts it. But what’s the point of examining all of these artifacts if I’m not willing to believe what I find in them? hooks talks about letting the newly discovered image of her father replace the images of him that stand in the way of love. I’m trying to let these new images of my parents replace the ones that stand in the way of my grief, because I consider a lack of grief to be a lack of love. I wonder if it was hard for hooks to love her father again. It’s certainly hard for me to grieve for my parents, even though I’m chasing a desire to do so. I don’t want to love or grieve a version of them that’s basically my own fabrication. Is it really possible, or wise, to let the things I didn’t know about them, or images I never had, overshadow the ones I did? That seems like a form of magical thinking to me, one that’s seductive, but also a little dangerous.

Although I started this blog to figure out who my parents were, I quickly found another goal. Once I realized that my parents might have been “different” once, I’ve wanted to figure out why they changed. Everything I’ve discovered seems to point to my brother dying when he was 10 months old, two years before I was born. Sorry if you want to shout “duh,” but I really didn’t understand how that could permanently throw their marriage off the rails if they already had one child and then successfully had another. (Shows what I know about relationships, children, life). Because I didn’t understand how that could happen, I assumed things had never been very good; that my parents were always the people I’d known. Even when they were alive there was plenty of information to contradict my verdict of their unhappiness: my friends’ affection for my mother, my father’s sense of humor, their travels and photographs, their interesting friends.

Maybe the biggest thing to take away from this is that you can never know your parents, alive or dead. I don’t think children have the capacity, or the distance. That doesn’t mean our version of our parents is wrong, but it’s certainly not complete. We can’t know our parents because when they’re fulfilling their duties as parents they are playing a role. They have to tell us what to do, worry about us, try to protect us—it’s hard for some of them to stop, even when we’re old enough to take over the responsibilities ourselves. 

— 2 years ago with 5 notes
#bell hooks  #dad  #grief  #joan didion  #longreads  #mom  #old letters  #long reads  #writing 
Thinking About My Brother

I’m thinking about my brother because I’m writing this, but I’m actually not thinking about him very much, considering a shaman just told me his spirit was pissed that I’m alive and he’s not. I don’t know how to process this news. I like the idea that it could be true, because it transfers the blame I usually save for myself because life isn’t how it should be to someone else, thereby absolving me of a little responsibility. It also confirms with freakish accuracy my suspicion that my “problems” are bigger than me, and maybe even located on another spiritual plane. What an explanation! I always thought the answer would be something more vague.

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— 2 years ago with 2 notes
#dead siblings  #death  #diaries  #grief  #spiritual healing  #shamans 
My Ukrainian Grandparents, Irene and Dmytro. My grandmother (who was a total bitch to my mom because my mom wasn’t Polish) was quite fashionable. She often bragged that she was the first woman in her village to wear pants.

My Ukrainian Grandparents, Irene and Dmytro. My grandmother (who was a total bitch to my mom because my mom wasn’t Polish) was quite fashionable. She often bragged that she was the first woman in her village to wear pants.

— 2 years ago with 4 notes
#vintage photos  #vintage fashion  #grandparents  #grief 
A Letter from London

This is a great letter my mother wrote her best friend two months after my sister was born.

I can’t believe what a happy new mom my mother was. She’s self-aware enough to realize her joy might be a bit much for people, but I’m glad she was able to gush to her best friend. I’ve have a few friends with kids, and none of them were this effusive or energetic. They could barely answer emails for two months, let alone bang out a letter on a typewriter. I’ve always wondered if my mother was reluctant or unhappy to have kids; this letter puts that theory to rest. What gets me the most is her handwritten addition on page three, “I would gladly do it again.”

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— 2 years ago with 2 notes
#mom  #new moms  #old letters  #london  #best friends  #sister  #grief  #loss  #parents 
San Francisco

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My California trip ended with two days in San Francisco with one of my college roommates. I always know that seeing her will be awesome, but this visit was particularly so. The time I spent with her had an acute feeling of rightness. We talked about real shit and laughed and walked down the street and kept pointing at each other and saying, “Yes.” That’s what the whole time was like. Yes. Yay. I felt like I was one of those wind-up chattering mouth toys. The two weeks I spent in CA before seeing her were a tightening of my dial, and when I got to SF I was put down on the floor so I could jump around yapping until I keeled over.

My friend and I drove to Marin and poked around Commonweal Retreat Center, where my friend had spent a week a few years ago as a part of a yoga philosophy conference (of course). It’s perched right on the coast, and is perfect and gorgeous in the way much of Northern California is. (Maybe you’re in Scotland. Maybe you’re in a Steinbeck novel. Maybe you want to move there, but could you actually handle how nice everyone is? Maybe not.)

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— 2 years ago with 6 notes
#San Francisco  #Commonweal  #Marin  #Grief  #Meditation