August 5, 2016
Anxiety plucked at my sleep last night, spun me round inside my blanket, eventually tossed off like that rest awarded the dead after a life lived well. The mind wheel turned over the many ways I should be more direct, genuine and truthful in asking, no demanding what I want and need–never an easy thing for someone who feels undeserving most days. And I don’t know why I should feel that way.
It may have to do with this: a girl grows up in a loving household with loving parents who have told her the stories of her past and of her family’s past. She is told that she is the only child who was planned. Her parents were trying for a boy after two girls. But she turned out to be a girl. So, despite her wish for no more than three children, her mother is persuaded to try once more for that boy for her husband. The fourth was the charm. And then there was the major accident 7 years after him, another girl.
The girl is loved and encouraged to succeed from a mother who had her own ambitions but stayed home to raise children. Eventually this mother got her GED, a driver’s license, a job, an AA in secretarial science, a BA in English Literature and a Masters Degree in English Literature all in a matter of 20 years beginning from the time the girl was 15.
She saw her mother cook, clean and care for her household, children and husband who worked too many hours to be more than a shadow in the house. He slept days and worked nights. The girl saw this mother wait hand and foot on the man who had a strange kind of love of insults and denigration. He called it love, and she called it something the girl would understand when she grew up.
Last night’s anxious rumination stems from this story. Rehearsing dialogues, letters and monologues aimed at asking for what I want–without guilt and remorse–takes all night. The conditioning that created the condition–disbelief in deserving–takes a lifetime.
Language matters. When newspapers call women mistresses or “homewreckers”, they are not just using an identifying term. They are also making a value judgement about what happened in a relationship – a judgment that often places the blame on women, even though there are two people involved in an affair.
So writes Jessica Valenti of the Guardian in an article entitled “ Why we need to lose biased words like ‘mistress’ for good.” Her argument based on Paula Broadwell’s campaign to get news media to stop using that word to characterize (and vilify) her relationship with ex-CIA director, David Patraeus, goes something like this: ‘Mistress,’ which has no male counterpart is one of those words used to blame women for behavior of two consenting adults, presumably male and female, that society condemns.
When we use words that prop men up for the same behavior that we disdain in women, we are sending a very particular message, one that causes harm whether you’re a reporter writing for readers or a parent talking to your kids.
She throws in other loaded terms targeting women like spinster and Oxford Dictionary’s ‘rabid feminist’ as a word definition example along with the usual words used against men to suggest womanly behavior like ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ that she concludes are sexist, outdated and harmful.
So let’s lose “mistress” and words like it. Our language should reflect the world we want, not antiquated ghosts of sexism past.”
She’s right. The word “mistress” has no male counterpart and denotatively and connotatively female words used to ascribe enculturated female behaviors as insults are loaded with history’s carryover sexist world. She’s also right that “language matters.”
But history also matters, for that matter. So, rather than cut ties with history by eliminating language that survives the ephemeral fashions, behaviors and ideas of long ago, why not use language to educate people? Rather than deny distasteful history, say, slavery or holocaust, by eliminating the hate words that derived from those horrific institutions and events (nigger, kike, etc.), how about we teach people to be aware of how we use language and why?
Jill McCorkle writes in the essay, “Cuss Time,” the story of how she resolved her nine year old’s forbidden fruit fascination with profanity by allowing him a 15 minute cuss time each day, a free-to-say-anything break in the day to let it all out. Risking a bad parent label (or even a referral to child protective services, I would imagine), she allowed her son the freedom to swear like a sailor rather than censor his language and lose the power, resource and history of language by eliminating words from her son’s vocabulary. She writes:
Word by single word, our history will be rewritten if we don’t guard and protect it, truth lost to some individual’s idea about what is right or wrong. These speech monitors–the Word Gestapo (speaking of words some would have us deny and forget)–attempt to define and dictate what is acceptable and what is not.
Valenti also opens her article with language parenting by mentioning her careful language selection, words she wants her children to use like firefighter instead of fireman. I believe these two authors hold the key to the problematic power inherent to language: teach children by mindful use and education rather than by a negative, censorship. The children wield the power to change future language, meaning, action and society.
(Thanks to Laura Steuer of infidelity counseling network for sending this article my way).
When they were little, headless operations I called them,
toddling about with no motion detection sensors,
oblivious to the science of mass in flight against
the immovable object, cause and effect, win and lose,
I feared losing their pristine purity, their soft roundness
drenched in new flesh, irradiant, to rocks and bumps
in the playground grass or sandbox, opening into
split lips or knobby eggs on their foreheads. I feared
losing them to cars in free fall, driven by madness
up on my lawn, taking my children with them, like
the newspaper clipping in the local Starbucks report.
I feared flus and asthma, pneumonia, broken bones
and stitches they could contract or suffer with
complication and then die in my arms or in their sleep.
I dreamed of kidnappings and wanderings off in
supermarkets or department store aisles, lost, lost, lost.
I walked them to school the block and a half every day.
And when they were in middle school, I dreaded
the treacherous row of absent-minded, harried
dropping-off moms vs. the brainless, twit t’weeners on
bikes, laughing and careening their wheels into traffic,
caring little for mortality the daily drive threatened
like that boy and his friend on a bike, on the same road,
on the way to school two days before the school year
start, picking up his schedule, leisurely, laughing,
peddling, looking back at his lagging friend just before
the swerve, the truck, the texting driver, the hit–gone.
I never let them ride their bikes to school, not with that.
I did not want to lose them to twenty somethings’ texts.
Just like I did not want to lose them to drugs, drunk
drivers and AIDS, cancer, concussions or accidents.
I did not want to lose them. And I lost them any way.
To friends, trends, music and driver’s licenses, to
social media and idealism, fierce loyalty and pride of
a generation angry in the wake of destruction their
parents have left them to navigate, chlorinate the gunk
of polluted finance and corrupt opinions and falsity,
falsity everywhere. I lost them to independence and
opportunity elsewhere, greener, colder, blue-skyed
distant and lonely, free and home away from home.
Not the right lyrics but the refrain is the same. We live like clichés: daughter leaving for college, we weep, we anguish, and we sever ourselves from ourselves to get past the pain. We cheer ourselves with thoughts of new beginnings and circle of life and metamorphoses, butterflies growing beautiful, upward flight past us.
It feels trite and real at the same time. Our lives have been captured in too many Hallmark poem-lets for sale.
I have anticipated this moment in my dreams (nightmares) since she was born, different shapes and scenery, but all the same theme: leaving.
She’s leaving home. Off to college, which will be her new temporary home in a new state. Whether the leaving is temporary or permanent is yet unknown.
In the meantime, I will be shoring up for the next one’s departure, estimated time of departure, two years or twenty.
Two terms were hurtled at me this week, one from someone who knows me fairly well in terms of years and intimacy, and the other from one who doesn’t know me at all except through what others have said or written about me or by my blog. One term was compulsive and the other was narcissistic. One I was a little puzzled by and the other made me bristle a little, both reactions triggered most probably by my disposition toward the accusers. Both terms can be seen pejoratively or neutrally. Neither seemed flattering.
Upon hearing (or reading) that a friend thought me compulsive, my first reaction was “Really? Let me think about that because it does not resonate with me.” Then I thought about certain “compulsions” I have had like running marathons, collecting educational degrees, teaching 11 classes one semester, and reading nearly every book I could possibly read in 9 months about pregnancy when I was pregnant the first time.
Then there was the training or more aptly the studying my first marathon. When I planned to run my first marathon in 1992, the L.A. Marathon, I read everything I possibly could about training, form, schedules, journaling, and nutrition. I hit Galloway on schedules and form, Fixx on mental attitude and Higdon on shoes in Running Times and Runner’s World as well as countless books, including the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I read Brody on nutrition and a host of others who have ever taken to the pavement in running shoes. I read and trained for a year, from the very first step of running ever to the last step of the marathon.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I read all about schools of thought on labor and delivery from Spock to Lamaze to Bradley, physician-led births to laboring couple directed births. I read parenting books from Spock to Sears, two physicians from opposite ends of the spectrum, one advocating traditional AMA-endorsed practices and parental control/conditioning, the other advocating Attachment Parenting with child-led weaning from breastfeeding and family bed. Soon after my baby was born, sleep-deprived and shell shocked, I suffered advice–some of it was painful though I listened to it all with urgency and respect–from my mother and mother in law and other veteran moms who often advocated letting the baby cry it out (instead of picking her up) or scheduling the baby’s feedings (instead of feeding her each time she wanted).
But I was a La Leche League devotee and read everything on their and other breastfeeding websites that supported a philosophy of breastfeeding and letting the child decide when it was time to stop breastfeeding. I remember so many looking askance at my breastfeeding toddler, including those who would ask outright in obvious discomfort or barely contained disgust, “How long are you going to let her breast feed?” My smart ass reply was always, “Well, I don’t know of any college bound breast feeders…” And I ached too hard to hear my babies cry.
When my kids were growing up, I read every book mothers in mommy and me groups were recommending about behavior and parenting practices, including Raising Your Spirited Child and a book called Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. When it came time to vaccinate, I read the AMA’s stance and unofficial websites of advocates of choice, citing the connection between autism and vaccinations, plugging anyone I encountered in park groups or toddler-focused activities, relatives and friends, for information and experience. I read. I asked. I listened. And I respected others’ ways of being a parent but, in the end, quietly followed my own learning and instinct. Still do, only now flying by the seat of my pants with teenagers.
But back then, I wanted to know it all. So maybe I was compulsive. Compulsive or obsessive?
Wanting accuracy and clarity about the word ‘compulsive,’ I went to the dictionary online and found the following:
resulting from or relating to an irresistible urge, especially one that is against one’s conscious wishes.
synonyms: irresistible, uncontrollable, compelling, overwhelming, urgent; obsessive
(of a person) acting as a result of an irresistible urge.
“a compulsive liar”
synonyms: inveterate, chronic, incorrigible, incurable, hardened, hopeless, persistent; obsessive, addicted, habitual; informal pathological
irresistibly interesting or exciting; compelling.
“this play is compulsive viewing”
synonyms: fascinating, compelling, gripping, riveting, engrossing, enthralling, captivating
“it’s compulsive viewing”
late 16th century (in the sense ‘compulsory’): from medieval Latin compulsivus, from compuls- ‘driven, forced,’ from the verb compellere (see compel). Sense 1 (originally a term in psychology) dates from the early 20th century.
Okay, so obsessive is a synonym for compulsive. Obsessive may fit. Still, I don’t think the definitions of compulsive apply, though I cop to two terms, one in the synonyms offered and one in the etymology at the end: persistent and driven. Those two terms seem true. While the drive to read everything–everything–I can about a subject may be obsessive, it is not unconsciously so nor uncontrollably so. The need to be not just informed but thoroughly informed may grow from insecurity, perfectionism or thirst. But I have never felt like I had to read everything, just wanted to. I love to read and learn as a teacher and student all my life.
Teaching 11 classes in one semester, insane as that was, did not derive from an addiction or unconscious desire to destroy myself, but from the need to test limits. If there is one tag line I can ascribe to, it would be to test limits when you can. Not that I am a huge risk taker, but I do like to see what the climate will bear in many situations. And I won’t consciously do something that I know will bring unnecessary suffering to me or my loved ones, or anyone for that matter. I am a mindful and conservative risk taker, at least for the majority of my days so far. On occasion, I have gone too far and risked too much.
However, I don’t believe as a general rule that when I am healthy and in my right mind I am overrun by habits and unconscious drives, though how am I to know? It’s hard to analyze the self accurately. I do battle with tobacco, an on again off again kind of fencing with a destructive force, but again it’s limits testing. I toy with the idea of controlling the poisonous intake by measured doses, a cigarette a day phase punctuated by long stretches, months sometimes, years sometimes, of not touching a cigarette. Then one day out of the blue I will smoke a half a pack. All right, I’m not sure who or which has the control: Am I playing with tobacco or is tobacco playing me?
Maybe I have a few compulsions, but am I narcissistic? The fact that I am writing about myself in a long-winded journal entry that I may possibly publish to a blog would indicate the truth of that accusation. The very act of writing–revealing the self–for others to mirror back in some fashion whether relating to or denying the author’s words may very well be narcissistic, if I think of the term as looking for mirrors. What does narcissistic mean?
having an excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance.
“a narcissistic actress”
synonyms: vain, self-loving, self-admiring, self-absorbed, self-obsessed, conceited, self-centered, self-regarding, egotistic, egotistical, egoistic; informalfull of oneself
“she was never happy in the narcissistic life that her press agent and manager had crafted for her”
relating to narcissism.
“narcissistic personality disorder”
In writing about myself now am I excessively interested in myself? I have a blog, so does that count as excessive interest in the self? I guess it depends upon what I write about. If my blog were one that solely gave recipes or tips on how to get a house clean, I probably could not be accused of narcissism by the pure donative nature of the blog alone. However, my blog is not exclusively an open journal like some I have read, which are diaries of the day to day events in a life. Something in between, I say.
I don’t offer advice or tips, but gather others’ advice, experience and opinions. I offer what interests me in writing styles, art and ideas, in the hopes of providing readers enjoyment, inspiration or thought. There is no question I subscribe to some viewpoints that I push for like tolerance and compassion, and thus blog more about some subjects, i.e., labeling, than others.
On the question of the mistress in its most common or popular understanding, the woman on the side, not the expansive definition of whatever owns you or is owned by you–people, ideas, predispositions, traits, habits, desires, etc.–I simply provide all sides and viewpoints, or at least aim to do so.
The ‘mistress’ is a complicated affair and concept and makes us all focus on the nature of relationships as well as challenges our notions of fairness, honesty, ethics, love, suffering, marriage, children and sexuality. My experiences as a divorce lawyer, spouse, mistress and human permit me to offer and question the topic, which encompasses the deepest and highest of all that is human. That is why the topic interests me and hopefully interests readers.
When I teach college students how to write essays, particularly narratives of the self, identity pieces, I tell them above all to be charitable: to be generous, to give to and be considerate of the reader, to show not tell the reader what happened and who you are, show the reader what you did so the reader can decide for him or herself who you are, to write with the reader in mind so that every detail, every word is written for that reader. I tell them to ask, “Will my reader understand me given that the reader has never lived behind my eyeballs? Is this a journal entry written to myself for my own pleasure or do I have something to share with one human being from another, something that taps into the universal human need, concern or condition? That is the job of the writer: to share, to give.
Now, the writer (and I mean nothing more than someone who writes) may again sound narcissistic, egotistical, to think a writer is in a position to give anything to anyone else, but lived experience, anyone’s experience no matter what life that experience is derived from, is valuable to another by virtue of it being shared even if only to provide commiseration, understanding, connection and companionship, a momentary relief from aloneness, let alone insight or education.
Am I conceited, self-centered, self-loving, egotistical, and excessively interested in myself, erotically or otherwise? Sometimes, sure. Other times, I am under-appreciative, insecure, self-doubting, self-deprecating, self-defeating, and many other self-(supply destructive term of choice). It took me 54 years to let anyone read a poem I had written, so sure I was that it wasn’t good enough.
Am I narcissistic because I write an online blog and not in a locked journal? Some might say so. One did. Perhaps, I am. And so.
Is it compulsive to carry on about it for this long? Probably. But I will leave it to the professionals. According to one Dr. Sam Vaknin, who wrote Malignant Self Love on narcissists, in FAQ#30, “The Compulsive Acts of a Narcissist“, writing a blog post questioning others’ judgments does not appear in his list of behaviors. Certainly, the extreme familial, genetic, behavioral and environmental factors discussed in the article are inapt for my narcissist label.
Somehow, I suspect, however, if I read compulsively on the subject, I would find that I could be a compulsive narcissist or a narcissist with compulsive behaviors. But I’d much rather scour my Facebook page for cat videos.