Sunday, May 12, 2013


(yes, it is a cliche to write about your mom on Mothers Day. What can I say?)

When I was a little girl (third grade? maybe fourth?) I remember I had to get a shot--we all remember this, right? The scary needle, the tears, the Dum-Dum sucker afterward: that's all part of my memory, but what I remember most is my mother. She'd told me that I had to get a shot in order to go to my new school. I was scared, and we'd been prepping for the occasion for days. In the beige, unremarkable doctor's office, she held both of my little hands tightly. "Look at me," she commanded, "don't look at the needle." Together we chanted, "It's not gonna hurt. It's not gonna hurt. It's not gonna hurt," over and over, our hands bobbing up and down in my lap in time to the words. She was looking at me, and I think I was trying to look at her, or maybe looking at my hands in my lap, watching them move with hers. I remember, as I felt the needle enter my arm, flinching. My voice wavered, "It's no-oot gonna hurt!"

I don't think of this memory that much. It's not the memory that I cling fondly to of my mother, a time when her strength and no-nonsense attitude got me through something that I was really frightened of as a girl. In the flash-back lens, it looks kind of sweet: this strong, brave black woman determined to teach her daughter that the power of her words are more effective than her fear. Two women with the same eyes and the same cheekbones, chanting and encouraging each other. But she got one small but important detail wrong:

The shot did hurt.

When I look back at this moment, I think about how often my mom did this very thing, denied what she (or I) was feeling. There were plenty of times, like the shot, when she just wanted me not to be ruled by my emotions, which is a good thing. On a certain level, there are lots of traditions that connect to this idea of detaching from your emotions. On the other hand, it can be (and was for me) quite damaging for someone to have their feelings and experiences denied or ignored. When my mother would tell me that she "couldn't talk to me when I was like this" (meaning emotional, weepy or sad) and that I should leave to compose myself and only come back when I had my emotions in check, I felt awful. No part of that instruction was about comfort, or even acknowledging that I was having feelings. It was all about hiding my experience from her to make her more comfortable. My hurt was real but she denied it and rather than making me feel strong or brave or able to deal with my emotions, I just felt distanced from the one person I needed to comfort me.

Our culture tells us that we have to deny our emotions. Never let 'em see you sweat. Hide in the toilets if you must cry, and don't let anyone catch you doing it. Always look on the bright side. But I don't know about this advice of controlling your emotions. I think instead we should feel our emotions. We don't have to be ruled or governed by them. We don't have to be so mired in depression that we sleep our nights and weekends away, ignoring our loved ones and watching episodes of Arthur or Criminal Minds. We don't have to drink our anger away, or allow our frustration to exit our bodies via our fists. Feeling our feelings--the unpleasant ones--allows us to release them. If I get angry, and say I'm angry, and feel that feeling, just being with it, rather than raining it all over my roommate or my spouse or the barista who screwed up my drink, then I can let it go. I don't have to sublimate it with food, or shove it down inside myself where it lines my arteries and eats away at the inside of my stomach.

I don't know what would have happened to me if my mother had told me that the shot was going to hurt, if she'd chanted with me, "It'll hurt but it's okay. It'll hurt but its okay." Maybe I'd be writing about her lack of support, instead of a lesson in squelching pain that I'm reconsidering. I don't know.
I had a cut in my hand when I cut this lemon. It hurt like a bitch.

Here's what I'm thinking: the universe has put a lot in my path that's painful--disappointment, rejection, abandonment and loneliness, and I'm in good company, I know. There's a lot we have in our world to avoid feeling pain: we have narcotics, we have Hollywood, we have sex, we have social media; there's a lot out there we can input in order to acknowledge and confront what's going on inside us that hurts. But to avoid feeling pain means to avoid feeling anything. I don't mean to say, "Pain is how you know you're alive!" or anything trite like that. I just mean that in order to feel the good all the way through, you also make yourself available to the bad feelings too.

So, bring on the pain, I guess.

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