You have a right to your feelings

Our feelings, it should go without saying, are always what we really feel, and, while we are feeling them, they are beyond right or wrong. We have to be gentle with our feelings as we consider how to move forward. They send us important messages our monkey minds can’t always perceive through cleverness alone. What we feel is what we feel, and acknowledging that is much healthier than pushing emotions down and pretending we feel some other way.

When you tell someone, particularly a friend or family member, how you feel, you are hoping for understanding. We are sympathetic to people we care about who are aggravated, worried, afraid, in pain, otherwise in need of comfort.

Compare and contrast:

I’m exhausted…”

That’s not hard to understand, you’ve been working your ass off, and working on short sleep, plus you’re worried, and that takes a toll on your energy too. Hopefully you’ll have a long, restful sleep in a few hours.

I’m exhausted…”

How come?

I’m exhausted…”

You shouldn’t be, it’s your own fault, why do you go to sleep so late and wake up so early? You don’t take care of yourself, I don’t know why you do this to yourself. A healthy person knows how important a good night’s sleep is. I always get at least eight hours of sleep, no matter what.

The first two replies are expressions of empathy. The third is not.

So what the fuck is that third response? An inability to empathize? A need to feel superior? A need to have the last, authoritative word? Obliviousness? Moral idiocy? Fuck if I know.

The only thing I can tell you is that when you get this response from somebody a few times, listen to what your roiled guts are telling you – this is fucked up. No matter how nice we pretend to be, it is not right to be treated this way. It is intolerable.

If you dispute somebody’s right to feel the way they feel, you dispute their right to be an autonomous person with as much right to express themselves as you claim for yourself. You can call it love or friendship, but those things both feel much different than whatever the fuck this is.

Dr. House’s Rule 12

My friend’s therapist, John House, has a great set of 18 rules of life that make a whole lot of sense.   Rule 12 is maybe my favorite, since we see it played out over and over and over and wonder why these nasty, painful cycles continue. 

Many people are impervious to the evidence that what they are doing is causing them identical problems over and over.  It is always easier to blame others than to search your own life for your own damage’s role in ongoing bad scenes. House’s lessons apply to anyone who is trying to learn to have less pain in their life by changing reflexive habits that cause them pain over and over.  

Rule 12:   A lesson is repeated until it is learned. A lesson will be presented to you in various forms until you have learned it. When you have learned it, you can then go on to the next lesson.

At my sixtieth birthday Sekhnet threw me a party at the home of old friends.  I held forth in front of a room full of loving friends, several of whom I’m no longer in contact with.  Most of the people there I’d known since I was a teenager.  Most of the people I met back then, and kept as lifelong friends, fulfilled a psychological need for me, to be close friends with people who had many of the traits of my perplexing father.  My father had all the tools to be a great friend, he was hampered by a black and white worldview that made it impossible for him to be wrong in any conflict.   As long as I avoided conflicts with these old friends who were often similar to the old man, everything was fine, for many years.   The pattern of fatal conflict emerged over many years and I could never see it coming or understand it once it arrived.

Tensions would develop, it could be over anything, often over something dear to me, or upsetting to me.  I’d be upset because my health insurance had been illegally cancelled (this happened to me three times, including during the first full month of the pandemic).  Suddenly a friend would tell me I was overreacting, that my anger was not proportional to merely losing health coverage.  According to my friend’s argument, it was an indication of something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was so irrationally upset.  Now we had an actual conflict:  your feelings are out of line, asshole, and what about my fucking feelings?

This was a mirror of the eternal conflict with my defensive, prosecutorial father — denial of my right to feel the way I did, reframing of my feelings to make them a magnifying glass for my problems and shifting the conversation to his moral superiority in not whining about his, much worse, problems.  I’d react to these friends with patience, with a hard-won ability not to explode in anger, extending the constant benefit of the doubt that strikes me as the heart of friendship.  

For some reason, I was unable to see, until this shitshow had been repeated several times over the decades, that In a conflict with a narcissist, none of these things will help in any way, except to prolong a maddeningly insoluble impasse.  If one person in a conflict is incapable of empathy or compromise, on pain of feeling utterly humiliated, that’s all she wrote, boys and girls.

I was sixty-five when I had my first conflict with my two oldest remaining friends.  The conflict itself was supremely easy to resolve, if both parties had been able to remain open, listening, granting the other person their imperfections.  I agonized for a solid year, waking every day with the pain of this impasse boiling in my head.   It caused tremendous agony to Sekhnet as well, that I was in such pain and couldn’t see my way out of it.   I kept thinking of House’s Rule 12, since this conflict had major echoes of several others over the years.  What am I not fucking seeing here?  I kept wondering.

One day, bingo!  When someone shows you they are implacable, will not listen, no matter what, will not grant you the benefit of the doubt that you are extending to them, take notice.  When they show you that face it may be a warning of worse to come.  The second and third time makes waiting for the tenth or eleventh time an exercise in masochism.  How many times can you reassure an angry friend of your good intentions before you realize they don’t have the capacity to care about your good intentions?  Three or four unrequited attempts to make peace should suffice.

Lesson 12, in my case, when someone shows you over and over that they must win the conflict, at any cost, including the murder of your friendship, the best roll of the dice is to throw them away.  No need to agonize for a year, and extend endless chances for compromise with people who would rather kill you, and murder your good name, than admit they had ever behaved badly.

Lesson 12, when someone shows you that they are a childish asshole, believe them.  House’s rule 13 will only be of marginal use at that point:

13. People always do the best they can. If they are doing poorly, it is because they have not learned the lessons that will enable them to do better.

Some people are angrily oblivious to the lessons of their lives. And those who must win at any cost are the world’s greatest fucking losers.

The uninterestings

The smartest woman in the room, a Harvard graduate with a successful literary agent practice who has read countless books, loved The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer.   It is the epic fifty year story of friends from summer camp, who met the summer after my closest friends and I met at summer camp, and stayed close thereafter, their lives intertwining over the decades, as, amazingly, ours had.  My two closest friends were so excited by the book that they bought me a hardcover copy, in large print, no less, a kindness to my old eyes I always appreciate.  

I began reading the book, which starts from the point of view of an insecure, working class teenager Julie, a girl who is flattered to be taken in by a group of the coolest kids at camp, who rename her Jules.  This little group, The Interestings, forms the dramatis personae for the rest of the book.  I confess, I had a hard time making progress with the book, it struck me, from the start, as profoundly uninteresting, though context may have played a large role, as I will describe.  I got the audio version from the library and listened to it, determined to hear the whole thing.

Toward the end of the book the depressive husband of Jules tells his wife that her lifelong fixation with these Interestings has always been a mystery to him.  Aside from sharing an intense bond as teenagers, what was actually so interesting about any of these interestings?  He certainly spoke for me, and I suspect, many readers.

The pretty rich girl who was the queen of this little group wound up rich and successful, and married to a billionaire.  Her brother, a charming kid much loved by the females, wound up an expatriate in France, when it became clear he might be indicted for rape.  The eccentric, creative kid who couldn’t stop drawing and making little animations, became a billionaire, which is what happens to real geniuses, I suppose.  The musician became an engineer, I.  forget what became of the rape victim, though I think she remained friends with the others.  Jules became a social worker, I think. 

We didn’t wind up talking about the book my friends of fifty years had loved so much they bought me a copy of it.  Now that I think about it, we’d rarely discussed any books we’d read in common, beyond a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  It was not terribly long after I read The Interestings before a fifty year friendship with my two closest friends was over.  That’s fairly interesting, I think.

My friend flew into a rage at me over a conflict that, were she not so angry, could have been easily resolved.  Her righteous husband forced her to apologize to me the next morning, after I’d had a sleepless night, traumatized that my closest female friend had glared at me with a contempt I’ve only seen from my long dead father.  This famously willful woman’s loss of control, the show of rage, and the forced apology, I now understand, were mortifying to both of my old friends. 

Although I immediately accepted her crabbed apology, which, while blaming me for the entire incident seemed nonetheless sincere and the best she could do, they couldn’t accept my apology the following day for using the fucking “f-word” in a moment of anger.  Her husband rallied to his wife’s side, telling me I had no right to expect him to understand my feelings, because he was too upset by what I’d done (the f-word!) to hear about them.  In the space of two days, it was grimly clear these lifelong friends were no longer my friends.  It took me over a year to stop agonizing and see the obvious because it all made no sense to me.

My old friend called after the hellish five days in a beautiful rented house that ended our friendship and began “wasn’t that a great vacation?”  It went quickly downhill from there.  Next stop, a month or so of silent treatment from a friend I always communicated with a couple of times a week.  Then a demand to meet, and at that meeting, his wife beside him, he began “I’ve walked away from friendships for less than what you did to me.”  Instead of verbally punching him in the mouth, which, in hindsight would not have been unreasonable, I reassured him of my friendship and he accepted my assurance, handed me a great book they’d bought for me.

Reading this book, some part of me must have understood the superficial aspect of the whole thing, the intimate friendship beyond question, the need to tell the same cover story, stick to the dramatic script, swallow hurt because your hurt is humiliating to someone who claims they love you like family.  And, like family, you simply have to unconditionally accept the faults of your parents, your siblings, your flawed uncles and cousins. 

The rap goes like this: being family means that nobody ever has to hear or understand why what they’ve done hurt the other family member.  Family is a sacred bond that cannot be broken, except by vicious, unforgiving, treacherously angry people falsely claiming to be hurt and who can’t let go of their childish grievances.  You understand that if I hurt you, I love you more than you are hurt, so it’s a wash and stop trying to talk about whatever you claim I did to you.  It is your problem, not mine, not the family’s, dummy up, be quiet, swallow our version of what you think happened quiescently or you’re going to be fucking sorry.  You don’t threaten the family, you fucking filthy mouthed fuck!

Interesting, maybe.  On their influencer daughter’s Substack page recently there was a long post with advice about how to endure difficult people, presumably those who intrude with strong opinions and feel they can never be wrong.  These people, she suggests, must be placed on an UNSAFE list and only dealt with when you have all of your personal matters for the day taken care of.  Funny to find myself on that list, but, yo, that’s family for yuh!  You’d have to be a reckless idiot to risk a million dollar inheritance to indulge the need for someone your family deems unsafe to have a word in your ear.

Impossible letter #2 background (conclusion)

So you’re a smart, good looking young woman who has modeled herself after her dominant father, but living in a world of aggressively sexist assholes.  You can’t walk down the street in NYC in the 1970s and 1980s, without these assholes making wolfish comments, giving you the entitled, liplicking asshole looks that make your blood boil.   What you need is a strong, loyal man by your side to kick anyone’s ass who tries this shit with you.

That much is not hard to understand.  The requirements for this guy, aside from size and imposing physical strength, are similar to our father’s requirements for his mate:  good looking, charming, smart, good sense of humor, devoted and ready to do whatever I say.

Then we face the law of unintended consequences.  She found this man, a handsome, athletic giant, who told her he was separated from his wife when their whirlwind romance began.  He would do anything for her, wanted to sweep her away to Arizona, start a new life in Tucson.  She was a New Yorker with friends and a good job, not ready for this radical new start.   He eventually got divorced and they eventually got married.  He was good looking, smart, strong and devoted to making her happy.  The unintended part, unseen, and once seen, rationalized: the guy was sometimes a bit of a compulsive liar and probably a gambling addict.

What did he lie about?  His academic degrees, his former employment, money, why he lost his job, why he needed to borrow more money, why he couldn’t pay back the money he’d borrowed, why he came home with his clothes sliced to rags and his wallet and keys gone, why he lied about a previous lie, why taking that merchandise from his boss and selling it under the table wasn’t actually stealing, why shoplifting really isn’t stealing, why pretending to go to work every day for a year while taking cash advances on your dead father’s credit cards and handing them to your wife every week as your pay is really a victimless crime and so on.

Bottom line, he was bad with money.  At one point he made an excellent living, selling a lucrative yet legal product, but he also spent lavishly, extravagant orders and generous tips at restaurants, many expensive gifts and then, bad news, after a couple of years of living large, a few years scraping by, he finally had to declare bankruptcy.   

He did this a few days after borrowing ten thousand dollars from his father-in-law, the DU, for last minute expenses related to the upcoming closing on the dream house he and his wife were about to buy.  A lovely home with a beautiful back yard, where their soon-to-be born son would grow up playing with his big sister.  The guy was a practiced liar with the gift of looking disarmingly sincere, and vulnerable, when he lied.  He borrowed the ten grand from the DU on Monday, waited for the check to clear.  On Friday he told everyone he couldn’t repay the loan or buy the house, he’d declared bankruptcy earlier that week.

All of these details are humiliating to have set out in front of you, granted.  The only other option is to dummy up about all of it, as he always pressured me to do, about things like his refusal to pay me back money I’d loaned him, back when I still spoke to him. 

The vow of silence on sore subjects required to maintain a sociable relationship includes a big IXNAY on any mention of the death threat when his wife finally called him out about his psychopathic untruthfulness.  

To be fair, the death threat was a one off.  The wife flew into a long overdue rage that had been building for years, after the surprise bankruptcy that ended the charade of closing on the never to be attained dream home.  He angrily shot back that he was going to lock her and the kids in the house (I think a bicycle lock and a piece of heavy machinery came into play in this threat to seal them inside– my nephew had been born by then, was a young baby) get in his car, drive the mile to his in-laws, murder both of them with their biggest kitchen knife, come home, kill the children and set the house on fire, burning himself and his wife to death. 

In fairness to him, he never did any of this, although the graphically detailed threat got everybody’s attention for a while. 

The little family was also teetering on the edge of bankruptcy number two and I offered to look over the family budget, see where they could make cuts to save money.  

There was no family budget, no accounts or receipts except for ones showing the interest rates paid by poor people who buy luxury items, like a giant flat screen TV, on the predatory terms imposed in payment plans.  I reacted badly to the obscene interest rates that doubled the price of the giant flat screen they were still paying for, years after buying it. I see now, thinking about it again, that it had to have been humiliating to be made to feel bad for just trying to live a decent life.

“You have to explain to your kids why you’re so angry at your husband, otherwise all they see is an irrationally angry mother always grim and stressed out, for no apparent reason,” I told my sister.   She wasn’t ready to reveal any of this, assured me her kids had no idea that she was so angry at their father.  I assured her that they were well aware of it.  

For one thing, she’d been sleeping with her young son, in his bed, for several years, until the kid threw her out one night, old enough to point out the obvious and say “this is weird, mom.”   

“They do know,” she told me one day, not long afterwards.   She’d been at the kitchen sink and heard the kids out front talking to the neighbors’ kids.  She’d heard them describe how much their dad loves their mom, but that their mom doesn’t love their dad.

I offered to be in the room when her husband explained to the kids why mommy had a right to be mad at daddy sometimes, as he’d promised her he’d do, at my urging.  Daddy, it should be pointed out, was always playful, gentle and affectionate with the kids, their best friend.  Mommy could be demanding, grim and dreaded if crossed, but daddy was a giant, humorous, always a loving pussy cat.  He loved to cuddle

I was in Florida for two weeks and offered to help my sister inform the kids of some of the reasons she’d been angry at their loving dad.   She agreed, but kept putting me off, in the end assuring me that he’d promised to talk to the kids with her, as soon as I left Florida.  No warning I could have given her would have made any difference.

A week after I got back to New York my mother called me.  “You’d better call your sister, I just heard from her, today was the day that R____ was going to tell the kids about his sordid past, it didn’t go well.  She’s driving a hundred miles an hour on 95, I’m afraid she’s going to crash her car.”

My sister, who was indeed very upset, told me the story.  Her husband started his mea culpa to the children by putting things in context for them.  “You know how your mother has a hard time forgiving people sometimes?  Well, years ago I made a little mistake…” and, as if proving his point about what an unforgiving monster their mother was, she exploded, raced out the door, gunned the engine and started speeding on the highway.

There are things in life you cannot fix, irreparably broken things you had no hand in breaking.  No amount of nuance you can provide will change a black and white world view into a gradient where everyone strives for the best, with needed compromise along the way.  In the world of someone who must win, and always be in control, everything must be viewed in terms of victory or defeat.  

Defeat is the most humiliating thing in the win/lose world and the fierce competitor will do anything necessary to avoid the shame of losing.  You can continue to love people, you can be willing to compromise, do your best to be supportive, understanding, accepting — bear in mind, none of this shit will help you when you are trying it with someone in conflict who can never be on the losing end of anything.

Mistakes.  These wrong things you accuse me of doing are simple human mistakes, when I make them.  When you do bad things, you evil fuck, well, you are completely in the wrong.  But my mistakes are merely the mistakes of an imperfect person with no hurtful intention behind them, you merciless, hypocrite fuck.

Get into a wrestling match with an alligator and you get what you get, sucka.

After my mother’s funeral in 2010 we were standing on Mott Street in Chinatown, on a sweltering, humid NYC evening.  Me, Sekhnet, my sister and my niece, sucking on cold bubble teas in the elbow of Mott Street.  My niece was about twenty at the time.  We were exchanging stories about this high strung woman, the older sister of the high school friend at whose house my sister and niece were staying.  The woman, a doctor, really was a bit of a cartoon character, a female Yosemite Sam.  I listened to a few funny stories and told about the one time I met her.   

Her brother and I had arranged to meet at a Queens restaurant he’d been raving about, his brother and sister would be there with him.  I sent him an email saying I was unlikely to be done with work in time to join them at the appointed hour, but that they should have appetizers and I’d hop on a train and be there as soon as I could.   I got there about thirty minutes after the appointed time.  They were sitting in a car in front of the restaurant, which was closed.   This was before the age when everyone had a smart phone in their pocket, and besides, I’d been on the subway for the previous half hour.   A woman stuck her head out of the front passenger seat and angrily told me that I was an inconsiderate fucking asshole.  I said “nice to meet you, Ellen”.

“But if you really want to hear stories about her, ask your father,” I said to my beautiful, smiling niece  “he knows her best of all, they were married.”

My sister made a desperate throat slash/ixnay IXNAY!!! gesture behind her confused daughter’s back.  I had no idea the father’s previous marriage and divorce was a deeply guarded family secret.  My niece opened her eyes wide and looked from me to her mother, back to me, back to her mother, totally confused.

“Mom, what?!   Was dad really married to her?”

My sister assured her that dad had never been married to anyone but her.  I stood in the street, at a loss for words.  I should have not been at a loss for words, and I rarely am, I must not have been ready for nuclear war with my sister at that moment.   She’d already nuked one of my major cities, true, by insisting that Uncle Elie was either crazy or a liar, or both, but I stood in the street, not ready to launch my counterattack.  I don’t operate that way, blasting first and cleaning up afterwards, for all of my skill at disemboweling desperate enemies with my sharp tongue.

As soon as I was alone with my sister I told her she had to straighten things out with my niece.  She had hammered an intolerable wedge between me and the niece I loved.  My niece now had to consider if her uncle was insane or just a compulsive liar who couldn’t help himself from spewing whatever gibberish came into his head.  My sister told me she understood, and she’d talk to her daughter, explain everything.   

Of course, there were a lot of conditions placed on that talk — both kids had to be informed at the same time (what this had to do with my nephew, who wasn’t there, was never explained) and they had to be informed at a time when their father wasn’t there, which he always was.  It would be tricky, she told me, but she’d do it as soon as possible.

I know what you must be thinking, dear reader, now that I’ve set out this story for you with the full illumination of hindsight.  “You know how your uncle is sometimes really angry and unable to forgive people who didn’t actually do anything to him?”

A year later, the next time we saw each other, my sister told me that she’d tried to keep her promise, but that the time had never been right to tell the kids what she’d promised to tell them, without their father there.  Seriously, though, looking at it in the context of the rest of this, how did I not yet understand the world my sister lived in?  I wasn’t ready to let her and her children go, couldn’t admit to myself that they were probably already gone.

When our father was dying, during the last night of his life, I asked him to record a little message for his daughter, in the event that they didn’t get a chance to speak before the end.   He hesitated for a long time, and everything he said afterwards applied to himself as much as to his daughter.  

Except that, naturally, he started off by saying he could never understand how she could stay with that colossal asshole after all the times he’d betrayed and lied to her.  I told him that his views on the subject were well known to everyone, but that perhaps he had something of a more helpful nature he wanted to say to her, before time ran out.  He had a very hard time formulating anything I could play for her.  

“No matter how much you praise her, it makes no difference, her need for affirmation is a bottomless pit,” said the brilliant man who’d insisted, moments earlier, that he’d been the dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill — “by far!”. 

I must I must have told her a hundred times what a phenomenally talented teacher she was, but it never made the slightest impression on her. It’s like a bottomless hole that can’t be filled.” said my father, a bottomless hole that couldn’t be filled, on the last night of his life.

“A hundred times?,” I said, not able to let that bit of dishonest hyperbole go, not in our last conversation. 

“Easily a hundred,”  he said. It was probably once, perhaps it was even twice, whatever it was it wasn’t a hundred fucking times. I let it go, aware that I was in his temple, the room he was dying in.

“His life was shame-based,” my sister said after he died.  “His whole life was an attempt to avoid feeling unbearable shame.”

Set and match, if you pattern yourself after someone you admire, in spite of the tremendous damage he did.

I went into a fury when my sister told me she hadn’t had a chance to set her daughter straight, claiming that since it was already a year ago that the kid probably had no memory of it anyway. When I blew up,  my sister burst into tears.  She sobbed like a little kid, I’ve never seen an adult cry that way.  She stood on the street, bawling and shuddering for a long time.  Then she promised again that she’d tell her kids that she’d lied, that their uncle hadn’t been crazy or lying when he casually mentioned an objective, taboo fact.

“Hi, Uncle Elie,” my niece said over the phone a week or two later.  “My mom wanted me to call to tell you that she told us that our dad was married and divorced before my parents got married.”

“Did she tell you why I needed her to tell you this?”

“No, we were both kind of confused about why it was so important to you…” she said.

“A hundred million people have been divorced, people get divorced all the time.  Why would I give a shit about you knowing that your father had been divorced?” I said.

“We were wondering the same thing,” she said.

I told her the story.  She’d forgotten all about it, just as her mom had predicted.  When I finished the story she said “now I understand why you were so upset.”

That may have been the last time I spoke on the phone with my smart, beautiful niece.  Ten years later, after periodic texts exchanged, with many heart emojis, I finally set out to write the impossible letter, to her and her brother.

The price of inheritance

The price of inheritance is obedience, to the exact degree demanded.   Dissident children don’t get shit, except for furious punishment while the bequeather is still alive.   Getting nothing, and being cast out of your family, is a very high price to pay for a fleeting feeling of personal integrity.

We spent five days with old friends in a beautiful rented house near Woodstock.  At one point I was sharing my long-running painful estrangement from my niece and nephew, my only two direct blood relatives, with one of my oldest friends.  I haven’t seen either one since my mother’s funeral in 2010.  My attempts to remain in touch have been mostly futile.  Now I don’t even hear back from either one when I reach out.  My friend, at a loss for any idea we haven’t already talked about, seeing how much this seemingly insoluble situation hurts me, looked at me with sad eyes and said “that’s very painful.”   I nodded and we sat there for a minute, just acknowledging how much this kind of thing hurts.

In the case of my niece and nephew I understand what they’ve been told by my brother-in-law and his wife.  Your uncle is an insane, judgmental, vengeful, lying prick.  He stole your inheritance when your grandparents died.  He will eventually kill you, if he ever gets the chance.  He’s a person incapable of love, forgiveness and honesty, though he pontificates at unbearable length about the importance of all three.  He is the lowest form of vicious hypocrite imaginable.  Picture Hitler, only much worse.

Fast forward a year and a half.

My periodic attempts to make contact with any of my old, formerly sympathetic friend’s three adult children, all of whom I have known since birth and fondly played with all during their childhoods, as well as advised and helped as young adults . . . crickets.

My own fault, really, since I refuse to acknowledge that to some people talking about conflict, with an eye toward preventing future strife, is exactly the same as viciously attacking them in their soul.   To speak about any kind of mutual role in conflict is to blame them, 100%, when they are unshakably certain that you are 100% to blame and a very dangerous fucker too, capable of all kinds of satanic appeals to love, fairness and vulnerability, which always come at their expense.  They will explain this to their children with passion, telling them to think of Hitler, only much, much worse.

I understand now that if you have a competitive view of life, see the world as black and white, win or lose, pride or humiliation, no compromise is possible with someone who does not do what you need them to do.   That’s just the way it is.  Keep whatever you want in your heart but keep any look off your face that shows defiance of a will that needs to be right.  Have as much integrity as you want in the quiet of your own soul, but show any glint of that and we’ll cut you dead as we cut our dear, old friend, Hitler, dead.  Clear enough for you, my beloved child?

To change or not to change

This dawned on me out of the blue yesterday, as my mind intermittently tries to work out another puzzle that has never made sense to me.   I realized that someone who lives in terrifying anticipation of unbearably painful shame and humiliation lives in a different, scarier, much more threatening world than most people.   In their world, someone they love, someone their children trust, can become an implacable Adolf Hitler clone in an instant.   Think of how terrifying that world would be to live in.

I had a long running debate with my father about whether people can change or not.  I believe that people can change, particularly if repeated, reflexive  behaviors keep causing you the same pain.  My mother confirmed the best of these changes in me over the years, but I myself know how much better I handle things like frustration, anger and depression than I used to.  

Change is certainly hard, it takes a lot of work and concentration, but it is possible.  When you can finally sit with your pain without crying out, you begin to see its causes more and more clearly.  If you see how your behavior, responding to a perceived threat,  makes the problem worse, you can little by little improve how you respond.   You will see cause and effect, understand the steps in behavior that lead to the bad result, and most importantly, learn to catch yourself before you react badly.  You will do a little better over time, if you are serious enough about changing things that torment you.   To believe otherwise is to accept that we’re doomed to a life of enduring constantly repeating misery.

My father believed that people cannot, on any fundamental level, change.   His position was that if you are born with a reflex to react with anger, that’s all she wrote about your ability to ever have significantly better control of your temper.  He told me, the night before he died, that his life had been basically over by the time he was two.   

He was referring to what had happened to him in those formative pre-verbal years before he could develop any memories at all, years that were all fear and pain.  This was a subject he never spoke of, but that I discovered a few years before he died when his older cousin Eli sadly revealed it to me. 

He angrily denied everything when I began to bring it up, denounced Eli as a fucking liar, but he acknowledged it the last night of his life. 

“Whatever Eli told you,” he said, referring to the beloved older cousin he denounced as an unreliable narrator and an idiot, “he spared you the worst of it.  Nobody could ever describe the true horror of the home I grew up in.”

What was this horror?  That he grew up in soul-killing poverty and that his mother was a tiny, religious woman with a Hitler-like temper and no threshold for frustration.   Whenever she got frustrated she took it out on the giant baby who had caused her such pain coming into the world, grabbing the nearest whip and lashing him across the face.

“In the face?” I asked my cousin Eli when he told me the story of watching his beloved aunt mercilessly whipping her toddler son.  He nodded with the saddest possible expression.

To my father, we are doomed when we start, however we’re born, whatever our predispositions, genetic tendencies and earliest experiences are, that’s essentially how we will always be.  What happens, according to my father’s view, is you put together a certain social veneer, you develop a talent for making jokes, have intelligent conversations, enjoy things like college sports, you can be fascinated by history, a one-time idealist and a keen student of politics, a philosopher, even, but all that is a social construct you make to cover whatever demons are churning inside yourself that you cannot change or influence in any meaningful way.  We are doomed, as the victims of whatever trauma befell us before we could defend ourselves, and there’s nothing any of us can do about, my father believed, until the last night of his life.

Fuck that”, was always my position.  If you suffer from a terrible temper, would it not help to understand why you get so fucking mad?  If, say, your mother had repeatedly whipped you in the face with the coarse cord of her steam iron, when you were less than two, wouldn’t that be a good reason to be a bit touchy later in life?   Or, let’s say, you first went to kindergarten with 20/400 vision, legally blind, and no adult discovered this until you were about 9, when FDR mandated that poor kids should have free eyeglasses as part of the New Deal (legislation that also outlawed child labor in the US, when my dad was already 8, working age).  Up until that time you’d been regularly mocked as a big moron for not being able to tell an A from an F on the blackboard.  Got your first pair of glasses in third grade, and went on the honor roll from fourth grade on.   These details are important to consider before condemning yourself as doomed to having an explosive temper and having been a big dummy when you were a young kid, no?

My father might have said “maybe for a novel, or some kind of rumination on human nature, but for the average person trying to get through life, support a family, work two jobs to give his children a good life after the grinding poverty of his own life, all that is more than enough to have on your plate.  Besides, no matter how many of the hideous details you relive, the pain involved in putting that puzzle together to the extent that you would be able to change anything meaningful about your life, which you know I believe one can’t, is unimaginably terrifying.   Why feel that nightmare again when we can do nothing to change our lives, in any fundamental way?”

Circular logic if there ever was an example of it.  Logic, of course, is not the right word to apply to that analysis.  Though my father was capable of sophisticated logic, and was a skilled debater capable of arguing either side of any position, this loop was not an example of any of that.  In formal debating, debaters learn to strategically deploy logos (intellectual argument based on facts and logic), ethos (moral argument) and pathos (appeals to emotion).  The inner world people like my father cannot escape from is ruled by pathos.   Have enough unbearable emotion in your soul and the greatest logical and moral arguments fall off you like rain off the proverbial duck’s back.  

I understand now that for someone like my father, wounded in his heart as deeply as he was, change was impossibly painful to even consider possible.  He simply could not imagine putting himself through the unnerving pain that would have been necessary before he could try to change.  To acknowledge that anyone else could change, but that he couldn’t, would only have added to his shame and humiliation.  His position that people cannot actually change was psychologically necessary for him because, for him, it was true.  

Logos, ethos and pathos, the only one operating full tilt, in many lives right now, is pathos.   Strong emotions rule the world in this age of Alternative Reason.  His will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.  Amen.

Fucking hell.

Impossible Letter #1 Big Surprise…

Impossible letter, indeed.

A few days ago (a mere 70 hours) I sent a short email to the daughter of longtime close friends, asking for her address so I can print out and mail a letter to her.  I told her I thought the letter might be useful to her. I wanted to mail it, rather than send it electronically, to give her a few moments of privacy with it before forwarding an electronic version of it to the family board of refutation.  (Here is a slightly redacted version of that letter.)


Her father had told me over and over, before withdrawing his friendship forever, that no matter what I said about our conflict, he wasn’t going to change his mind about anything.   He’d told me that he’s walked away from friendships for less than what I’d done to him (whatever that may have been — he never elaborated).  He told me I’d never seen him really angry, and that, trust him, I didn’t want to. As for anger, it was unfair, and totally wrong, to call his wife’s rage at me “rage”, it was just ordinary anger and she had apologized for allowing herself to be so provoked by my threatening aggressiveness.  He reserved the right to get indignant, over and over, as we ‘worked out’ our differences (I was hurt — no you weren’t!).   He spun every hurtful encounter, no matter how destructive to our friendship, into “progress”.  When I presented him with stark facts, he went silent, for a month, then called to see if I had learned my fucking lesson.  He concluded I hadn’t and that’s that.

I told my physical therapist that the adult daughter’s solution to having grown up in this kind of home was to openly declare her parents gods.  At every New York performance she would take a moment to salute her parents, her idols, and announce that her mother is a goddess.

“That’s creepy,” the therapist said, stretching my leg.  I nodded.

“Creepy, but smart,” she said, and I chuckled at how astute that was.

Big surprise that my final offer to tell the young woman what I thought would be helpful to her — not to blame herself because her parents had forced her into musical regimentation at a critical time in the young prodigy’s development out of ignorance, they didn’t know musical geniuses like Paul Simon couldn’t read music — fell again on deaf ears.  I thought I could help, relieve the kid of the burden of blaming herself for everything painful between her and her difficult parents, but apparently I can only hurt, now that I’ve brutally, gratuitously tortured and decapitated both of her godlike parents.

So the thing she learned from her upbringing in a house of absolute right and absolute wrong is the thing she does by reflex.  I get it.   As long as she remains sober, she’s ahead of the game, I suppose.  Like Eric Clapton.

The political is also gruellingly personal

It is not novel to observe that the personal and the political are closely related.  In my case, the present political situation is also a grim, constant magnification of my personal experience. For those of us who are personally susceptible, who find constant hideous echoes of our personal experience in the political landscape, following the news produces a form of PTSD.  

Gabor Maté made an interesting point about PTSD.  Apparently of 100 soldiers sent into a hellish war zone, like house to house fighting in cities in Iraq where it is impossible to even know who the enemy is, only a certain percentage will emerge with PTSD (I think it was something like 15%).  Every one of the soldiers who wind up with PTSD have childhood trauma that makes them susceptible to it.  Not to say that the other soldiers are happy about the hell they’ve been sent to, or don’t have the occasional nightmare about it, but the exact re-experiencing of the original pain and terror happens only to a select few.  So it is with the news.

The personal is political:  there is a progressive personality type and a repressive personality type, an authoritarian personality type (that can go either way politically) and a type that embraces differences.  There are inquisitive, talkative, collaborative types and close-minded, taciturn, competitive types. It’s easy enough to observe that some types are prone, by personality and life experience, to be liberal, others lean conservative.  Some believe in harsh punishment, support the death penalty and others abhor the thought of a possibly innocent, usually poor, person being executed (as happens frequently) and embrace policies like restorative justice initiatives.  

We have seen a deliberate, massively well-funded project (to be fair, engineered by the far right, guys like Charles Koch, Rupert Murdoch, and their highly effective network of morbidly wealthy fellow traveler influencers) to divide these types into uncompromising partisan camps that must fight the other side’s evil to the death.  Who does this simplistic, eternal, total war benefit?  The people who already enjoy every benefit.  It comes at the expense of everyone else.

On a grand scale we see the triumph of selfishness, greed, heartlessness, corruption and flagrant lawlessness among the powerful and the hypocritical application of harsh law, even spontaneous death sentences for powerless citizens suspected of minor crimes.  It can all be explained in an anodyne, New York Times style way that makes the status quo look less grotesque.  

For example, economists of capitalism have a neutral term for the human cost to making vast profits — like babies born deformed and clusters of cancer near runoff from a chemical plant — externalities.  You have to pay these poor people a certain amount in legal settlements, so your profit is slightly offset by the expense, but in the name of raising stock value to shareholders, externalities are an acceptable and unavoidable part of doing business, if the profit is otherwise high enough.   Some would say that decision makers who factor such “externalities” into the cost of doing business belong out of business and in prison, but that’s a political view, incompatible with the “freedom” we all enjoy here in the free market.

When millions marched, during a pandemic, to protest the intolerable injustice of ongoing police killing of unarmed civilians for minor offenses — or none — they were met with teargas, tanks, helicopters, horseback charges by police, batons, handcuffs.  The protesters were treated like an insurgent army, a force the right-wing administration claimed were a deadly, terroristic threat to national security that had to be neutralized with superior force.   What’s up with that?

“If you are angry about something you claim gives you the right to be angry, then FUCK YOU! You want to protest so-called state violence?  We’ll give you some violence you can take back home with you, when you get out of jail, asshole.”

This is the predictable reaction of a narcissistic psychopath.  They will unleash the full force of whatever they’ve got to defeat anyone who has a problem with how they need to do things.

I learned, only very recently, at 66 years-old, that I’ve been shaped by and fighting narcissists my entire life.   A few months ago I described the gruesome parade of many of my closest longtime friends as highly intelligent, darkly funny, prone to anger/angrily denying anger, deeply damaged, unable to compromise, determined to win no matter what the cost, etc.  I did not yet know that this constellation of traits also describes the narcissist.  I guess what made me finally understand what I was actually up against was suddenly being confronted by a series of outright lies, desperately, brazenly spat into my face in an attempt to make me submit.

Narcissism can be very subtle, as I also learned.  The fact that my narcissistic father never needed to outright lie to “win” our arguments early on hid the cardinal trait of all narcissists from me: falseness.  Without that lying piece I could see my father as disturbed, a jerk, an asshole, a tragic man, etc. but his overarching personality type, narcissist, was until very recently hidden from me.   

Now it is all I can see, when I doom-scroll the news, hear George Santos angrily rebut the true charges that he’s a lying sack of shit, the passionate calls to impeach Biden, (details of charges to follow), a strutting donkey of less than average donkey intelligence calling for a national divorce, a spineless political worm’s defense of the “transparent” move of handing all January 6th security footage to a propagandist for autocracy and on down the list.

Narcissists rule, yo, as they were born to do.  They always have the same answer to every concern you might raise “FUCK YOU.”  They may say this harshly, or politely as can be, but the answer will always be a close variation on that staunch proposition.   “You want to know why I have nothing but contempt for you, asshole? How about FUCK YOU, that fix the boo-boo?”

“And have a very nice day.”   

Impossible Letter # 1

Dear T:

This note will have to stand in for the conversation I’d hoped to have with you for the last fifteen years or so.  Writing to an excellent writer makes me a little more hopeful that you will take in the message I am trying to convey.

The summary version: you need to let yourself completely off the hook for harmful childhood conflicts that were not mostly your fault.   Forgiveness is a great gift to give yourself, I can’t recommend it highly enough and I hope to convince you how indispensable it is.  It comes, in part, from looking clearly at the past and drawing honest, merciful conclusions about life.  It comes from an understanding that is often impossible to come to on our own.

My need to tell you this was kicked into high gear a few years back when a concerned C referred me to your final piece on that website you worked for.  In that emotional essay you painted the picture of yourself as a problem child who had inflicted great harm on your family by being an asshole. Why you felt that way is understandable.  For one thing, your parents, as I have now seen up close, are pros at presenting a united and unyielding front, no matter how strong the merits of the position they are opposing are.

Making this letter a bit more ticklish to write is the indigestibly tragic fact that your parents have judged me a person unworthy of their love (I know, in their version I did that to them).  A year or two ago this letter, making a simple point about self-mercy, would have come from a beloved family friend.  Not the case today. The short history (which omits occasional thoughtless treatment over the years that I never made an issue about) is that after a few days of an increasingly stressful Yom Kippur holiday in Woodstock, your mother lost her temper at me.   

In her mind she was being considerate to me and my arthritic knees by giving me the choice of two hikes that would begin at 10 a.m. the next morning.  To me, she was micromanaging the ‘vacation’ in a maddening way that was wearing me out.  In addition to the unacknowledged, escalating tension in that beautiful rented house, I’d been doing everything on short sleep as is my custom when hanging out with others, ignoring my circadian clock for a few days for the sake of spending more time with friends.  Feeling that I was resisting her at one point, she glared at me with a laser beam of hostility I have only seen on one other face: my abusive father’s.

Note how easily the entire “conflict” could have been avoided had I made it clear that everyone was free to do whatever they wanted in the morning, my feelings wouldn’t be hurt by not being there, I’d be glad to sleep until rested and see everyone when they got back.  Sadly, I hadn’t made this clear and, of course, that ship has now sailed forever.

A few hours after she stormed off to go to bed, insisting we had to leave at 10 a.m. and not 11 (your father had offered that compromise), I found myself retraumatized.  I was a 65 year-old adult, treated to a rage I saw frequently in my deeply damaged father, an unreasoning reflex to rage that he was bereft about as he was dying.  The sharp pain I felt in my lungs was identical to the familiar emotional punch in the chest from my childhood.  How was it possible to be treated this way, as an adult, by a dear friend I loved, who loved me, who I’d never had a cross word with in 50 years?  I’d been unable to close my eyes when I finally went to bed.  I didn’t want to wake Michele, I paced the house, unable to go outside because it was raining all night.  Of course it was.

In the morning, around dawn, your dad came into the living room to daven.  I was sitting in a chair, we nodded at each other and I turned aside to give him privacy to pray to HaShem.  He went back to his bedroom, came out shortly afterwards with your mom, who looked haggard and beaten.  I could hardly recognize her.  She told me she needed to talk. I told her I hadn’t slept, needed to sleep, was too upset to be sure I wouldn’t say something hurtful, something I wouldn’t be able to take back.  She insisted that she needed to talk right away.  I didn’t argue with her.

Her apology was painful to her, clearly, maybe even humiliating, but crabbed as it was, her desire to make peace felt sincere to me.  I told her I accepted her apology.  When she said at the end, uncharacteristically, “I need a hug” I hugged her and kissed her and went to get some sleep.

During her problematic apology (she made it clear she was apologizing not because she’d done anything wrong, but only because my aggressive, threatening manner had caused her to fear me, hence her bad reaction) she mentioned that I had made her feel the way you used to during your many fights.  And, BINGO.

Like you, I was the “genius” of my tormented little family, and also, the eternal adversary of a prosecutorial parent who needed to “win” every conflict, in my case my father.   On the last night of his life my father was filled with regret and was finally vulnerable enough to acknowledge that he’d been aware of the many times I’d tried to make peace with him over the years.  He beat himself for being too fucked up to reciprocate.  I did my best to reassure him that he’d done the best he could, that if he could have done better he would have. 

I think he was grateful for my merciful attitude, and I was grateful to hear him apologize for the first and only time in his life.  But what a tragic fucking “healing” it was, I closed his dead eyelids as the sun was setting the following day.

In the aftermath of our mutual trauma in Woodstock, two days later, your mother did something thoughtless, suddenly walking out while I was preparing the lunch she’d just brought me the ingredients for (she’d unilaterally decided she wanted something else, was taking Michele into town to go shopping).  After nervous peacemaker Michele kept anxiously asking me what was wrong with me, why I was so upset and so forth I finally exploded for a moment, uttered the dreaded fucking f-word, and the rest is history.   

Directing the word “fuck” to your loved one, in your parents’ eyes, I learned, is as unforgivable as beating her with a stick and repeatedly kicking her in the stomach.  My immediate apologies were weak tea coming from an abusive wife-beater, they weren’t sure they could ever really forgive me for that.  They remained upset for some time over my brutality, likely they still are today.

All of this should have been relatively easy to untangle.  Old loving friends, a couple of misunderstandings that could have been easily avoided (in hindsight), tensions nobody could talk about (I still don’t know what exactly is going on between your folks, they didn’t trust us enough to share anything specific) erupting into little outbursts of understandable frustration.  

It only becomes impossible to resolve when the need to feel justified, perfect, beyond criticism comes into the picture, becomes the entire picture.  As you sagely said at the second seder “never disagree with M.”

This letter has taken a slight detour from what I’d intended to convey to you, so let’s shift the focus back to your childhood and what I set out to tell you.  You were a musical prodigy.  Your parents didn’t want you to have the miserable, high-pressure life of a child star, they wanted to prevent you from becoming a monster and having an unhappy adulthood.  Their solution, classical piano lessons, was not a particularly good one, but it was done with good intentions.  

I’m sure your parents were unaware that Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney (and the other Beatles), Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Taylor Swift, Aretha Franklin, Django, Jimi and other musical giants (I suspect Joni, too, but couldn’t confirm it) can’t read music. Reading music, to your parents, was essential to being a competent, professional musician and songwriter.  Therefore, classical piano lessons and a succession of frustrating, frustrated, piano teachers.   Sadly, your parents didn’t understand that love of music, and playing and inventing it purely out of love, is the best way to develop a talent like yours.

I was at the dinner table at 181st Street when you sat on your dad’s lap.  V was there too, and recalls this also. You were a curly haired two or three year-old.  Your eyes twinkled as you got my attention across the table.  It was like you were saying “watch this, are you ready?” Then, a moment later, almost with a wink to me, you instantly sent your father into a spasm of anger.

Soon thereafter he went into therapy to learn how to avoid becoming the kind of angry, destructive parent his mother had been.  When he was satisfied he wouldn’t traumatize you the same way, he stopped therapy.

I’ll try to give you the schematic view now: whatever happened to H [T’s grandmother] to make her H (the dark side of her) led to her short temper with your father, her lack of control as she slapped him hard in the face whenever she got angry.   All very bad shit, no question, terrible and inexcusable.  

I’ve told your father the story of my eventual breakthrough in therapy (aided by my father’s first cousin who gave me the heartbreaking image of my father, as a toddler, whipped in the face repeatedly by his psycho mother) that allowed me to, not exactly forgive, but come to a useful understanding.  

I saw that my anger at my father was only hurting me (and certainly not helping him, though fuck him).  Bad as it was, he’d done the best he could.  I was still pissed, but, fortunately, I had enough emotional distance and understanding to be present and compassionate when my father was suddenly on his deathbed.  I was no longer going to reduce him to the sum of his inadequacies as a parent.  I had no axe to grind, only sorrow.  Luckily for both of us, we had one great, decades-overdue, honest conversation the last night of his life, and then he was gone. 

I kept urging your father to work toward this point in his feelings about his mother, while there is time.  It is a fucking tragedy to have this kind of deathbed reconciliation and to be left thinking of all the wasted years of senseless warfare that could have been avoided by mutual forgiveness, all the love foolishly lost.  

So much for a schematic view, here’s another shot: Your father can’t forgive his mother.  As a partial result, he can’t forgive himself.  Even as he understands it comes from his mother’s irrational demands, he feels he needs to be perfect, anything less is a torment to him.  None of us are perfect. 

When we hurt people all we can do is apologize and try to make amends.  It is the same with ourselves.  When you’ve done everything possible to fix a broken relationship, for example, and nothing is helping, in the end you have to let yourself off the hook or you go mad, turning the anger on yourself.  The only thing to do when someone you love is truly sorry about something they did to you is to accept their apology, forgive them, as you forgive yourself.  Can’t forgive yourself?  Can’t really forgive anyone else, or really love them. 

Would you have been a more prolific, protean composer if you hadn’t had those years in the straitjacket of involuntary classical piano?  Who knows.  We are all responsible for our own lives and our actions.  That’s not the same as taking the blame for things that are beyond our, or possibly anyone’s, responsibility and ability to fix or make right. 

I was tortured for more than a year trying to make peace with your parents.  The days before the following Yom Kippur, it turned out, were not right for the honest conversation we needed to have, your father got angry that I pressed for it, stormed out of the restaurant.   I kept thinking there was something more I could do, some big life lesson I still needed to learn.  More patience, more kindness, more goodwill, more benefit of the doubt, more dispassion, more love. 

One day I read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer, an excellent, thought-provoking book about Mormonism and the hazy boundary between genuine religious inspiration and psychopathy.   At the sentencing phase of the trial for a Mormon who claimed he’d killed his wife and daughter because God commanded him to, the guy’s lawyer made the case that he was mentally ill and shouldn’t be executed.  Krakauer quotes the defense attorney:

When narcissists are confronted by people who disparage their extravagant claims they tend to react badly.  They may plunge into depression or become infuriated.  When narcissists are belittled or denigrated they feel horrible.  They have this sense that they’re either grandiose, perfect and beautiful people, or absolutely worthless.  So, if you challenge their grandiosity “they respond with humiliation or rage” (DSM IV).

Fuck me, I thought.  That’s where the ongoing, defensive displays of indignation and anger come from, a desperate fear of humiliation.  To your mother, who seemed freshly enraged that her humiliating apology was seemingly ignored when I got upset at the next thing she supposedly did, and your father, neither of whom I’d ever imagined might be narcissists, there is no middle ground.  They are either good, perfectly admirable people, or they seem to feel utterly worthless and humiliated.  No wonder they kept getting angry whenever I tried to talk painful things out with them.  In their zero-sum world our falling out HAD to be my fault, 100%. If I didn’t accept that, I was leaving the door open to a terrifying nightmare for them, that they had done something wrong that deeply hurt someone they loved and that therefore they were unworthy of love themselves.  That was not going to happen, and they’d do everything necessary to make sure it didn’t, including killing our long, deep friendship.  Hell of a price to pay, no?

Maybe my estrangement from them, and the insight that finally made me stop flailing against it, adds a compelling dimension to this letter.  Something that should be fairly straightforward for old best friends to fix “Eliot, we understand why you were upset, why you lost it for a second, why it was so hurtful to you when we couldn’t accept your apology, why you needed to say what we would never let you say, it was wrong of us to angrily shout you down, not to mention not showing any appreciation for you reacting in friendship instead of anger each time one of us snarled at or threatened you…” proved impossible for them.  Now that I had that framework from Krakauer I had a way to understand the life or death stakes that made it impossible for either of them to say anything like that.

Enough about me, (although my recent experience with your folks might resonate with your own) this letter is about you.  You recall that powerful moment from Goodwill Hunting when Robin Williams, as the psychiatrist, keeps repeating to Will “it’s not your fault.”?  It’s not your fault, T. 

We all sometimes, in some ways, act like assholes.  The assholes who can calm down, do their best to make amends and can truly forgive themselves, without conditions, love themselves (and others) the best.   I don’t mean forgive yourself no matter what and fuck trying to do better and everybody else. I mean, ultimately, when all the thinking and analyzing are done, and every demonstration of good will is exhausted, realizing you did the best you could, if you did, or, if not the best you could, maybe the best you could have done under those bad circumstances, is key. 

Years ago my parents’ best friend, Arlene, took me for a walk at sunset, on a beautiful hill overlooking a verdant river valley soon to be “developed” by “developers”.  She lit up a tiny pipe, we each took a couple of hits, and she laid something heavy on me that turned on a light in the universe for me. She told me to put what she was telling me in my pocket, think about it, that it might take a while to sink in.  

“You know your parents are my best friends,” she said.  I did, there was never more laughter in our house than when she and Russ visited.  The laughter would come up the stairs to our bedrooms when we were children, along with the smell of smoke from Arlene’s chain smoking.

“I know you carry the burden of feeling like you are a disappointment to your parents, that you feel like youre the cause of their unhappiness and have to do something remarkable with your life to make them happy.  You need to know that your parents are very unhappy people, having nothing to do with you.  You don’t need to carry the heavy weight of their unhappiness.  You should put that burden down, it’s not your fault and it’s not yours to carry.”

No need to put that one in my pocket.   It was like she’d reached up and pulled a string to turn on the light.  We need to see what is our’s to own, and try to fix, and what is not.  The simple truth of it, obvious as it also was, almost immediately illuminated the start of a long path out of a particular misery that had always been completely unnavigable.  

I have wanted to pay that blessing forward for forty years.  Whether I have done so now is up to you.  

If you get back to me, remind me that there is one more piece of this puzzling turn with your parents that I want to run by you and your brothers.  While it is almost certainly impossible to resume our friendship (the breezy social version I offered at D’s wedding apparently infuriated them), for the reasons I’ve set out above, I still care about them and have a specific concern about your father’s health, which doesn’t belong in this letter.   Not that there’s anything I can do about it, except bounce it off his kids.

My best to J.