So what do you do when it is cold and wet outside? I had envisioned a different kind of weekend, yet I’m finding myself grateful. For one thing, rain is a precious commodity. Of course, when it results in flooding and loss of life, it is easy to conclude that too much of a good thing isn’t. I’m also not a fan of the cold unless I’m sitting outside in the Jacuzzi or riding on a ski lift.
Yesterday afternoon when I got home from work, I was surprised to find the General’s car gone when I opened the garage door. Somehow in my mind, she is always home. Conversely, I often am somewhere other than home and even when I’m home I don’t have a lot of down time. Somehow the spaces always get filled in with a myriad of activity.
Yesterday was different. Cold and wet was only in the forecast at that time, but as I dropped my briefcase off in my home office, I noticed “Hillbilly Elegy”, the half-read book I had promised myself I’d get back to reading. “Perfect” was the word that immediately came to mind. With book in hand, I headed toward the sun-porch. There is something visually inviting about being surrounded by windows with a clear view of outside. It is a combination of all the comforts of home with the sensation of being outdoors at the same time.
I grew up loving to read. I don’t know if I should credit my mother with that or credit my father? Mother was the one who encouraged us to read and regularly took is to the library to check out books. My dad, on the other hand, was the parent who invested an inordinate amount of time reading. He, too, loved to read. I guess you could say that mother provided us the mandate and dad led by example.
Earlier in the week, I made reference to the book: “Hillbilly Elegy”. I was mesmerized reading the first half of the book. I put the book down only because my son and his family arrived to share a portion of their Thanksgiving holiday with us. I never envisioned when I set the book aside that it would take me a week to get back to it.
There was something about the way the author vividly describes the childhood impact of living in a household where broken relationships, alcoholism, drug usage, and family conflict were constant companions that make the reader sense they are visually watching his journey. Perhaps that is the litmus test of effective writing. When you can sense the disappointment and sorrow, the broken promises and stories with unhappy endings, it has an emotional impact on the reader.
Like I’ve said, “The book is well written.” On the author’s journey from a childhood wrought with difficulty, the ingrained cultural ties of a generationally dysfunctional Appalachian family to a four-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, he discovered something about himself that he previously didn’t know.
He emerged from his four-year enlistment with the Marine Corps with the confidence he had the wherewithal to be successful in life. That awareness was a new dimension for him. It provided him the tools to know that he had the ability to make choices that could alter his future.
Yet, because of previous life experiences left over from childhood, he continued to have baggage that needed to be unpacked and set aside. For example, by his own admission, he had no idea how to negotiate relationship problems. He certainly didn’t want to succumb to fit throwing and screaming and duplicating the toolbox of problem solving techniques he witnessed in his family of origin. Consequently, he attempted to simply withdraw and take on the persona of a turtle hiding within his shell. That, too, proved less than effective. Fortunately, the love of his life helped him discover the technique of open and honest communication.
Most of the people I know didn’t grow up in the kind of relational quagmire or landmine that was characteristic of this man’s life. Yet, regardless of life experiences, none of us grew up in a perfect family and when it comes to relational interaction, we don’t always get it right.
The holidays are upon us and I know a host of folks who have a difficult time with holiday and familial expectations. To some degree, it gets back to family or lack of family or leftover scars associated to childhood. Some very capable adults grew up with the clear message that “they couldn’t do anything right.” Consequently, thoughts of returning homeward for the holiday and triggering those same “you can’t do anything right” messages is both frightening and overwhelming. Consequently, most simply opt out of meeting familial expectations and choose to remain at a distance from family.
I thought about it this morning before I got out of bed. Why is it so difficult for some families to lovingly and peacefully co-exist? I’m not talking about the level of dysfunction that you find on the pages of Hillbilly Elegy. I’m not talking about families where violence, alcoholism, or drugs steal from one the ability to be relationally intact. I’m talking about families who have the cognitive capacity to do it differently, but don’t.
I know so many families who on the surface seemingly have it all together, but in reality are relationally dysfunctional. Avoidance is the primary tool they use in negotiating life. They live without connection or even a desire to mend fences or invest in the hard work of problem solving. Consequently, they push the people they should love most out of their lives.
I don’t get it. I can’t begin to imagine, but it is the sad reality where many people find themselves and it doesn’t seem right for anyone in the mix. I realize that is my personal value judgment and until I’ve walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, I don’t really have the frame of reference to know what I’m talking about.
Not only did my mother encourage us to read and my dad led by example, they also both role modeled for us the importance of extended familial relationships. We had the privilege of extended family relationships that were positive and enriching. That didn’t mean that life was perfect, it wasn’t. But we grew up with the message that nothing was more important than family.
I visited this week with a friend who wishes something different for his extended family. His was a harsh childhood. Drugs and alcohol weren’t part of the mix, but emotional abuse was very much a part of his everyday childhood experience. I suspect there was also physical abuse from his step-father, but he hasn’t said. What I do know is that three children somehow emerged into very capable adults, but the deficits associated to those formative years pit one family member against the other. He sadly, but realistically says: “It is what it is”. His frame of reference is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced, that I want more for him and his siblings. Yet, I don’t have the wherewithal to wave a magic wand and say: “And they lived happily ever after.” Perhaps: “It is what it is” is as good as it can get, but somewhere in the Christmas story is the fabric for doing life differently.
All My Best!