Children Will Listen

From a very young age, I could feel what was happening in the adult world around me.

I am not unique. Yes, I am a highly sensitive person. But I believe we all are. I have no way to gauge another’s inner experience – just guessing.

Children have not yet developed the callous that life experience cam eventually create. They are sponges, picking up everything that is going on around them.

Why then do adults tell themselves that their kids “won’t know what is happening” and decide that is is best to “shield them” from “harsh, adult” realities?

There were pivotal events in my childhood that were never explained to me: my mother’s miscarriage when I was 6. My aunt and uncle’s divorce. The fact that my grandfather had had another family before ours. These things were never spoken of. Yet, I felt the energy around them and knew that something was going on.

Left to my own devices, I had no choice but to try to make sense of what I sensed, to piece together what I could as best I could with my emotional immaturity and my limited understanding.

I assumed my mother was dying. I thought she had stomach cancer. When she was taken away to the hospital, I thought it was forever.

When my uncle literally disappeared from our lives, I thought I must have done something to make him leave. I learned that people who you love can leave without reason or notice. I learned abandonment.

And as for my grandfather’s secret other family: my grandparents knew that there was a first wife and a son. They kept it to themselves. Boy, was that a heavy weight.

I could literally feel it in their presence. Their home, a place I loved dearly, always felt slightly “off,” and there was a barely discernible tension whenever the phone rang.

Years later, when the truth came out, my entire world clicked back into its rightful position. Living in the atmosphere of secrets gives added weight to gravity. It creates a denseness to the air one breathes. There is a physical and emotional tension of “readiness” you develop in that environment: you do not know why, but just under the surface you are on high alert, 24/7.

I’ve had to unravel these experiences. It has taken time, patience, professional help and love.

I have a friend who was an active alcoholic for the first years of his kids lives. After he got sober, he refused to consider that they had been affected by his drinking. He felt he’d hidden it well, that he’d been highly functional, had kept it from them.

I don’t know why he had such a blind spot around it. A kind of denial. Maybe it was too painful for him to admit to himself.

Maybe he, my parents, and my grandparents, were all well-intended and thought they were doing the best thing for their children.

Perhaps it was too complicated-feeling for them to try to guide their children through the truth so they opted to keep quiet and hope for the best.

All I know is that children do know – can sense – everything happening around them. And that if adults do not help the children make sense of what they pick up on, they will form their own conclusions about the world that they experience.

The prolific Stephen Sondheim captures this reality beautifully in his song, “Children Will Listen.” The lyrics are below. Here is one of my favorite renditions by the incredible Mandy Patinkin.

Who are your children listening to?

Children Will Listen

How do you say to your child in the night

Nothing is all black but then nothing is all white?

How do you say it will all be alright

When you know that it mightn’t be true?

What do you do?

Careful the things you say

Children will listen

Careful the things you do

Children will see

And learn

Children may not obey

But children will listen

Children will look to you

For which way to turn

To learn what to be

Careful before you say

“Listen to me”

Children will listen

Careful the wish you make

Wishes are children

Careful the path they take

Wishes come true

Not free

Careful the spell you cast

Not just on children

Sometimes the spell may last

Past what you can see

And turn against you

Careful the tale you tell

That is the spell

Children will listen

How can you say to a child who’s in flight

Don’t slip away and I won’t hold so tight?

What can you say that no matter how slight won’t be misunderstood?

What do you leave to your child when you’re dead

Only what ever you put in its head

Things that your mother and father had said

Which were left to them too

Careful what you say, children will listen

Careful you do it too, children will see and learn, oh

Guide them but step away

Children will glisten

Temper with what is true

And children will turn

If just to be free

Careful before you say

“Listen to me”

Children will listen

Children will listen

Children, children will listen

Songwriter: Stephen Sondheim

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: observe

Flight

I lay on my side

Face away from the door

Stay still, slow my breath

Pray he thinks I’m asleep

Then a breeze shocks my back

The sheet lifts, the bed shifts

Hot breath at my neck

No luck tonight, fear chokes my heart

I go into a trance, nothingness

The familiar comfort of the void

Leave my body, don’t need it

My soul and I, we float into the wallpaper

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: trance

Lust Life

Much of my adult life has been about coming to terms with lust.

Having grown up in a fairly conservative family with mainly Protestant roots, I learned early on to deny and repress my lust: for life, for sex, for fame, for love, for food.

So much so that I lived a kind of double life from my teens into my twenties.

I hid many behaviors that all revolved around my various appetites. Somewhere in my somewhat stunted emotional development, I had learned that being seen as having a need (be it physical or otherwise) was weak, unattractive.

And so I learned to pretend I did not have them.

And yet, at the same time, I also had a very strong need to be seen as a sexual object. (See Sexual Healing, my previous post on this issue.) This presented quite a war within me. I desperately wanted to be seen and treated like a sexually desirable woman – that was sort of the ultimate need. At the same time, I had shame and embarrassment around this and had strong messaging that that was bad, and that I should be a good girl with no sexuality, appetites, strong opinions or feelings.

And so I pretended to be one one way while in secret I acted in other ways.

I invested a great deal of time into creating the illusion that I was chaste, a normal eater, and had  a very neutral opinion on just about everything. I monitored my emotions and watched myself around people, carefully choosing mannerisms and tones to project a good girl.

Meanwhile, I was living quite another kind of life, a life I hid from my family, my friends. A life of appetite and lust and danger.

There were certainly angels watching over me. I was often in the wrong places at the wrong time. Somehow, I survived.

At a certain point in my twenties, the jig was up, as they say.

My psyche demanded that I heal the split, and I began the process of recovering wholeness again.

Of uncovering my own genuine appetites from a place of love, curiosity and acceptance. Of letting go of the urge to keep my appetites hidden.

I began a process of embracing of my true nature and wants and needs as beautiful reflections of my own humanity. I began the shedding of the shaming nature that I inherited.

An unlearning of the social pressure that happens in middle school to put a damper on enthusiasm, to keep a lid on want to look cool.

I learned to let myself eat as I really wanted to in front of others.

I learned to let myself be seen trying, excited, wanting, sexy, hungry, angry, hopeful, happy, disappointed, frightened, messy, unhappy, empty, full, vulnerable, awkward, lonely, blissful.

I learned to let myself be seen. As I really am.

Today I value the self-honesty that I live from. Truth is of huge importance to me.

Though I am still in awe of the capacity I had within my own psyche to maintain such a dichotomy the way I did – that I could compartmentalize two such distinct worlds at once – I am so grateful that that is just a chapter in my story.

Today, I have one world with many parts: parts that co-mingle and bring me great joy in their diversity.

I celebrate my appetites, I revel in my enthusiasms and passions.

I love my lust. It is what lets me know I am human. And alive.

So today, I try to wear my lust like a smile.

 

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: lust

 

Broken Lineage

When I was in my mid-20’s, my father made a revelation to me.

In the instant he told me, it was if suddenly, an off-feeling I’d had my whole life until that moment suddenly made sense. Something aligned within me. My relationship to the world felt different. It felt like the earth turned just a bit on its axis and snapped into place after having been off for so long.

I felt like I could breathe just a bit easier after a lifetime of holding it in just a little.

My Dad and my mother sat me down and the story unfolded. My father had been at a work conference in Galveston, TX at which he was to speak. As she always did, my mother went along.

She stayed in the hotel when he actually went to the event that morning. Before the event, there was a meet and greet in the front area of the arena. My Dad had on a name tag, as did the other guests and participants.

At a certain point he noticed an older woman looking at him form across the room. Later, she approached him, and he recalled thinking she seemed hesitant about talking to him. As they began to small talk, he looked down at her name tag, and commented, “Hey, that’s funny. We share the same last name.”

He said the woman sort of paused a moment as if considering what to say next, and then suddenly blurted out, “I’m Rose Curry. I was your father’s first wife.”

She went on to explain that she’d been married to my grandfather and that they’d had a son together, my Dad’s half-brother. They were long-since divorced, and agreed not to have contact or tell anyone about the child, but her son had always known of him had always wanted to contact my grandfather, his father.

She and her son both lived in Galveston, and she had seen in the paper that my Dad was speaking. She had not been sure of whether or not to come.

My Dad says he went into a kind of shock. He doesn’t recall anything else about the conversation or the event. He gave the speech somehow and then afterwards went back to his hotel room.

My mom said when he walked in the door, he was white as a ghost.

He recounted the story to her, and they posited that perhaps it was someone looking to grift some money out of him. He was sure that his father could never have been married before, much less have a child and not tell anyone about it. Surely they were just looking to demand some inheritance or something, claiming to be relatives.

But curiosity got the better of him. He looked through the phonebook and found the name of the man that Rose Curry had claimed was his half-brother, and he called the number. He spoke to the man, and they arranged to meet that afternoon in the parking lot at a McDonald’s.

And my Dad said that the moment he saw the man get out of his car and approach him, he knew that the story was true. He could see the resemblance clear as day.

He spoke with the man for several hours. It turned out that this man, my half-uncle, had tried several times over the years to re-connect with my grandfather. He’d gone to Midland, TX (halfway across the state) to his house and rang the doorbell, only to be turned away in the snow.

He’d even called my Dad’s house once, at holiday time, in the hopes of speaking to him.

He’d had a tough life, struggled with depression and alcoholism.

My parents told me that after they left Galveston that day, my father had talked to my grandfather about the man. But my grandfather wanted nothing to do with him. As he had turned him away so many times over the years, so he turned him away again.

I. Was. Floored.

Suddenly, my whole childhood made sense.

I’d always sensed an indefinable energy around my grandparents’ house in Midland. They were loving people. I loved to be at their house and around them. But they didn’t leave home much. And there was a tension that I could feel as a child, something I could not make sense of. I guess I always felt that something was about to happen. Something bad. It felt like we were always on hold.

Hearing the revelation of this first family of my grandfather’s, it all made sense. That energy was the energy of holding a secret together.

My grandfather had been married and met my grandmother and fell in love. He had left the other woman, and their son, and they’d divorced. My grandfather’s side of the family knew, but were sworn to secrecy. My grandmother’s family and the family she and my grandfather would make together were not to ever know.

My God, that takes a ton of energy, to hold that big a secret.

So every time there was a knock at the door…every time the phone rang…they must on some level had been thinking would it be someone who knew the dirty dark little secret?

I remembered a man coming to my grandparents’ house at Christmas. My grandfather going out and talking to him on the front yard, coming back in angry.

(Now I know it was him.)

I was at the Thanksgiving dinner table when a man called interrupting dinner, asking for my Dad. My Dad came back to the table saying “some guy had just called and as said he was his brother, must be a wrong number, the guy sounded drunk.”

(That poor man trying yet again.)

Secrets are powerful things. They create an energy, they take up space. As you work to hold them in, it takes away from the living of your life. Every relationship feels that weight in some way or another.

As a sensitive child, I sensed it all. But no one would say a word.

I was close to my grandmother, but the one time she ever got mad at me or denied me anything was when I asked her in college for some family history. She refused to help me. I was so confused by her behavior at the time. It was so unlike her.

But once the big secret was outed, it all made sense.

My idea of my grandfather was forever altered on that day. My grandfather and my grandmother, but she had been dead for some time.

I never spoke to my grandfather about it. I had wanted to, but my Dad said not to, and I complied. I guess I have been conditioned to accept the weight of lies.

Sadly, he never agreed to have contact with the man who was his son, my half-uncle. I never met him either. All involved parties are dead now.

I remain. And I seek to be sure that I live life lie-free. Lies cost too much, and they can never be held forever.

I had a half-uncle. I wonder what he was like. I hope his children and their children have also broken the chain of lies. You can only hold the Truth at bay for so long.

Inspired by The Daily Post Daily Word Prompt: revelation