I was raised by parents who had been physically and psychologically abused as children. They grew to adulthood with little ability to restrain themselves when frustrated and, quick to anger, took out their unbearable feelings on their children. My sister and I were blamed for all kinds of things, some of them ridiculous. I trace my need to express myself to my childhood desperation to untie the knot of the incoherent story I was expected to accept about myself, about my sister. I started writing fairly young, and before that I drew, constantly.
“Why are your drawings so scary?” my mother would sometimes ask.
“Because I can’t write yet,” I might have told her.
I had a girlfriend and her baby visit me in New York decades ago, saved up, sent them plane tickets. The child, who I loved very much, is now in her thirties, maybe forty (damn!). I last saw her on her fourth or fifth birthday. Her mother was beautiful, talented, had a great sense of humor, we got along great, I loved her, but in the end things didn’t work out between us. During the week they were my guests, the two year-old had a few temper tantrums, as two year-olds do, and her mother tried to press me into moving to California and join the community she lived in with her Indian guru, Baba Hari Dass. I felt increasingly pressured as the week went on.
After they left I found a drawing I’d done while they were in NY. It was a shapely woman’s leg, standing firmly on its lovely foot, with a leash tied to the thigh, where a garter would be. The leash was taut and straining against it was a dog with a human face, and a huge boulder on his back.
“Fuck,” I thought when I saw that drawing afterwards, “that self-portrait says it all…”
I find this unexpected revelation of my deeper feelings with writing sometimes. I read something I wrote and a phrase jumps out to clarify a complicated quandary for me. Here’s a paragraph I wrote recently that made me realize something very important about a prolonged estrangement from two of my oldest, dearest friends.
Long, deep talk with old friends recently [different ones — ed.], reminding me of the healing power of being heard and of forcing yourself to hear things you may not like to hear. These are crucial perspectives you can’t come to on your own when you are impaired by pain. Good friends don’t always have to agree with you, though they often do, but they always treat you with care when you need care.
Simple test: did my oldest friends always treat me with care when I needed care?
Well, not always, and lately, for the last nine months or so, no care at all. In fact, the opposite of care. They insisted I was wrong to feel the way I did after one jumped ugly with me, since in their story she was only reacting to my threatening attitude. They blamed me for ruining a wonderful vacation with a flash of anger the last day, denied there was any tension at all leading up to my outburst, just a simple misunderstanding I blew up over, until seven months later one of them admitted things had been very tense, because she had been micromanaging everything to make sure it was all perfect. The other one later threatened me that he’d walked away from friendships for less than what I’d done to him. The first one had a temper tantrum, then was so shocked later that I still needed to talk about it that she went incommunicado for months, then had another temper tantrum when I dared to bring up the troubling pass our long relationship has come to.
Understanding does not lead to a clean solution to your vexations, but it is better to see the thing clearly than to have it muddily painful in your head, waking you hours too early, like a toothache. I compare this depressing impasse with my dear, old friends to having a knife stuck in my side by one of them, unintentionally, let’s say. When I pointed to it, the other pushed it in a little further. Months later, when I gestured toward the still unhealed knife wound, the first one stuck her finger deep into it and wiggled it around. I didn’t bleed out, I didn’t lose consciousness, so what am I fucking blubbering about? That’s a tiny flesh wound, asshole, I’ll give you something to blubber about!
To forgive is divine, truly, and to be slow to anger is praiseworthy. I managed not to respond to either of them with anger, but their conditional apologies turn out to be hollow, empty, without form or substance, without any change in behavior. I don’t need apologies anyway, as I explained to them, I need to be heard and understood by loved ones when I’m hurt. You know, empathy, understanding, the benefit of the doubt — basic friendship. I expect to be treated with the same care I extend to them. But that turns out to be unreasonable when the only pain the other person can truly relate to is their own.
We are all capable of casting ourselves as the victims when things get ugly, and things are ugly enough for all of us right now on this imperiled little planet, at the doorstep of climate destruction and surging worldwide fascism. There are also not always two equally compelling sides to every story. Treating friends with care is the most basic duty of friendship. Dereliction of that duty, especially if repeated over and over, is an indication that the friendship you are clinging to may already be dead.
I still have a hope that these two dear friends will have an unexpected change of heart the next time we meet, whenever that might be. I’m ready to be pleasantly surprised, delighted and relieved, by that change of heart, that deeper understanding. It’s a slim, wan, simpering hope, I know, but it is a hope and I appreciate it. Hope is always better than no hope, I believe, until the proof is irrefutable and the hope for something better is crushed by dull, heavy, merciless reality.