This Lent I found myself surrounded by people giving up things. A coworker gave up alcohol after months of long stressful hours working with hurricane evacuees. Another gave up meat, suffering her loss of chicken-fried steak. One friend has cut out all chocolate—except the kind with 70% or more cocoa beans. Another is effectively giving up the weight gain left from her second child by going to the gym regularly. Me, I gave up my mother.
An only child of a single mother with chronic mental health problems, I have weathered her depression and anxiety-peaked-with-rage mostly alone. Despite medications that provide some relief, she tips regularly into drama, self-pity, accusations, and narcissism. Much of the time she acts like a two-year-old who could use a nap. She doesn’t want to be this way, but she’s powerless to her own chemistry and history. This time our disagreement centered around our decision to spend Christmas with my father, stepmother, half-brother and adorable nephews—instead of with her and her new husband and his adult children. She stopped returning my phone calls. So reverting to email with its innate distance and courage, I suggested we just meet for coffee when I come to town to visit my best friend who happens to live in the same city. Remarkably, she agreed, both of us knowing I only come in the summer.
It was a dream come true. Initially, I felt like an unleashed dog, free to roam near and far without a familiar tug around my neck. A few days later, strange spring weather moved in, knocking the chair off our front porch and bringing much-needed showers. Yet when the actual clouds cleared and the sky returned to its perfect shade, I was still moving slowly, unable to form thoughts or, having shaped them with effort into sloppy pinch pots, I watched them fall apart under their own soggy weight.
Life near my mother—her dinnertime phone calls proclaiming suicide a solution, periods of loathing nearly everything and everyone, and her related attacks of anxiety—has given me a healthy respect for depression. Whenever a cloud forms in my chest I know it’s back -- a man dressed all in black riding in the backseat. I know he wants to take over the wheel, but I won’t let him. I’ll drive around all night if I have to, like in an old cop movie, but I won’t give up control.
This time was different. My chest felt like a cave, my shoulder blades were on fire, my eyebrows were leaden. Tears gathered from wherever they are made and hung behind my eyes like swollen baggies people hang on the porch in the summer to magically ward off flies. This, my best friend proclaimed on the phone, was grief. Lucky for me, she is an expert on grieving, having devoted an entire year to it when her marriage evaporated just a few years ago. Despite the 600 miles between us, I was very involved in her grief; as she led me through her tears and anger, disbelief and shame, I followed with a box of Kleenex and the inadequacy of language. Now it was my turn.
The forty days of Lent got their significance from the ancient solar calendar comprised of forty-day months. I vaguely recalled that Jesus wandered the desert for forty days and Moses’ flood lingered forty days but when I did a little research I discovered this time period throughout the Bible. A Hebrew woman is to wait forty days after the birth of a male child before rejoining the community (even longer if it’s a girl). Moses spent forty days in the cloud of the mountain top before bringing down the ten commandments and later returned to the mountain for another forty-day stint. The tribes of Israel spent forty days checking out Canaan before determining it flowed with milk and honey.
Nowadays a wildly popular Christian book is promoting “40 days of purpose” while churches around the country attract literally thousands of groupies for their forty-day campaigns of community-building. This sounds like terrific marketing for born-again Deadheads to me. Yet, there is something to the idea that for as long as we’ve been evolving our ideas about God, people have been taking a journey of forty days—to the mountain top, to the desert, to a promised land, or into motherhood—and returning changed.
In yoga, it’s considered auspicious to practice the same set of movements for forty days in a row. Some believe such a daily practice can change an old habit into a new one that lasts a lifetime. An on again/off again yoga student since I was 19, I’ve absorbed enough yogic ideas about breath, spinal alignment, and spirituality to remember to not slouch at the sink when I brush my teeth and to chant OM in class without worrying I’m off key. But I’ve never had much desire to practice at home, and certainly not for forty days in a row. I tried it once as a college student and when I got food poisoning on day 28, I was done for.
grief changes you. The Sunday before Lent I visited the backyard studio
of my favorite teacher, Angela. A Philly waitress in platforms turned
Angela led me through two sets of movements she designed for me to
healing (in the morning) and forgiveness (in the evening). As the days
unfold, I repeat the same postures, lifting my arms here, aligning my
there, folding over my own body into the resistance of my hamstrings.
Sometimes I sob into my knees, sometimes I am nowhere near my knees. But
always beneath my grief is my chest swelling with breath. I can feel a
change deep within me, floating in my belly, twisting up my spine,
in my throat. If I deny myself the life-long desire to have a
relationship with my mother, an unachievable goal anyone who really
about me would agree, what new self lies beneath?