Friday, May 23, 2014

A Strange Comfort

I've always been mindful that a single event can upend your life, but I always thought about them in catastrophic terms, like the loss of a child, detrimental crippling of your body, a horrific crime. I never imagined that my sister's decision to cease communicating with me more than seven years ago could continue to affect me the way it has. This act by one person, in a world of more than seven billion, has changed so much of how I see things, including myself, and how I face the world going forward. It's like the unraveling of a single knot that silently threatens the integrity of the whole quilt.

At several different points during those seven years, I made my mind up to accept it, even though I could make no sense of it. How do you comprehend that someone in your family would rather be rid of you and pretend you are dead, rather than talk through whatever the problems might be? Could I be that unreasonable, impenetrable, uncompromising that she should prefer silence over any combination of the million plus words that exist in the English language? 

But those questions no longer haunt me - not with the same intensity. And I no longer hope and anticipate and dread at the same time that her email address will suddenly pop up in my gmail inbox or that I'll see her phone number on my phone. I no longer plead with my parents to figure out a way to help us, bringing up examples of what others parents have done in similar situations in the books I've read, and no longer have to try to digest their words, What can we do? When has she ever listened to us? I no longer think about how much my children have already grown and how they change every day and how she will never know them as they were today, yesterday, the day before, and so on. I no longer fret over what to tell my children about her, preferring silence to do its job of keeping her nonexistent in their lives. 

I do not limp around like an injured animal. Instead, I rarely talk about it unless someone brings it up or innocently asks about my siblings. I no longer feel the sting of shame when I choose to reveal that she has estranged me. I do what I can to go about my business and live my life in all of its humdrum details. I load the laundry, post photos on Facebook, and dance with my children as we watch the parade at Disneyland. I get hair cuts, manicure my toenails, go on vacations, and chat with other moms at my son's school. 

I tell myself that I found a way to get a handle on the hurt, to tie it up once and for all and tuck it away, not to dismiss it, but at least to move it out of my immediate path.  

What I didn't expect was for it to continue to unravel year after year, left alone as it was. 

Even in the quiet of an ordinary day, I find myself transformed, often into a lesser version of myself. A squabble between my two children hurls me into crisis mode. A minor argument with my husband takes me to a dark place, where I wonder what is wrong with me, why am I not fit to handle any relationship, will no one put up with me? I no longer make friends so easily. I stay guarded, reluctant to put in the effort it takes. A cancelled dinner or a no show at a playdate feels like an affirmation of an uneasy rumbling deep in myself that I suspect must be really true, something others have always known about me.

Even happy or neutral moments stand unprotected. Nothing more than an innocent scene from a Frozen sing-along where I sat between my husband and my four year-old with his enormous bin of butter-drenched popcorn while my two year-old wiggled restlessly on my lap. On the enormous screen, the younger sister Anna protects her older sister Elsa from Hans' sword, playing out "her act of true love," and saves their kingdom forever. As Anna started to thaw, tears gushed out of my eyes, even as I sat very still to avoid calling attention to myself, and my mind flailed wildly, wondering what happened, how did we fail so terribly, why couldn't we find our way to a happy ending.

Or another evening in a resort tucked under the soaring red rocks of Sedona, where I had taken my parents on vacation. A conversation with my mother at the dining table under the hanging lamp while the kids sleep and Jeff and my dad huddle over their iPads. It is here where she lets slip her belief that her children are defective. In my sudden anger, I push her to explain, what is my defect? What is my defect? She blurts out, you are too headstrong, too narrow-minded to understand other people's weaknesses. Suddenly, I realize that she, who could find no way to help us even as I begged, holds me at fault for the breach between us because I'm the one she always described as tough, and my sister, delicate. Under that hanging lamp, I felt that thread further unravel.

Before, I would never have described myself as cynical or bitter. But now, if someone were to ask what bitterness tastes like, I would describe it in delicious detail.

The other day, I was reading an article about a child of murdered parents who was eventually adopted by the police officer who found her at the crime scene. Talking about the policewoman who became her mother, the child who is now a young woman said, "She taught me what it was like to hope and to truly trust; if ever in life I didn't think things would work out, I could trust her, and I would just put all my trust in her and she would get me through to the other side."

Reading that made me think about how I've undergone something akin to the reverse of this process. This estrangement from my sister has taken away much of what I had taken for granted: the belief that there are people in this world who will always be there for you, that your family is for keeps. I no longer have this faith that things will work out, and I feel anxious about putting all of my trust in a single person, even my husband.

In the midst of this pessimism, I opened a book two days ago and didn't put it down until I was done. Sonali Deraniyagala's Wave. It is a memoir by a woman who lost her two children, her husband, and her parents in the 2004 tsunami. I feared reading it after skimming the description, but downloaded it impulsively on my kindle and plunged in. I could not stop turning page after page, even as I read clenching my muscles and holding my breath. Often, I feared the upcoming sentences, afraid that they would feel too real. And many times, they did. Her boys, her husband, the author's despair, her terrible loss. She experienced the worst of my fears, and somehow she is still alive. She found a way to live. I could not understand how. How do you live after such a devastation?

One of her passages early in the book stayed with me. As she watched the tsunami approaching from her hotel, she ran holding her children's hands as her husband ran behind them. She did not stop to knock on her parents' door next to hers. She just ran. She had no time. Her job was to save her children. As I read it, I understood her. I did not judge her or wonder why she did not stop to try to save her parents. I understood.

Thinking about that helped me put some of this into context. The immediacy of my family.  

I also thought about the devastation I would feel if I lost my children and Jeff. Reading Sonali's book helped me realize the depth of that devastation. The estrangement from my sister in that context is really nothing. If I lost my children and Jeff, I wouldn't know how to live. And that thought has never occurred to me about my sister's estrangement. Realizing that is a strange comfort.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Our Little Princess

The other day, we started our morning battling. I dropped the first gauntlet by reaching for an apple red ruffled top with a pair of blue jeans. This caused my two year old daughter to scream, "I don't want to wear pants. I wear a SKIRT!" She stomped over to the closet with her little feet sticking out of the holes in the blue sleepsack and reached for a hanger. "I wear Hello Kitty SKIRT!"

The "Hello Kitty SKIRT" is a full fledged tutu. The waist is banded with a glittery silver belt stamped all around with Hello Kitty's face. The skirt flares out with a swath of light pink, then bright fuchsia, and juts out shamelessly, creating a halo two feet wide around my daughter's pale, thin, naked thighs.

"Well, okay," I said, "but you have to wear some leggings, ok?"

As she saw me grab a pair of black leggings, she screamed out, "NO, I don't WANNA wear PANTS!"

"Don't worry. You can still wear the tutu, but with leggings, ok?"

To demonstrate, I helped her out of her sleepsack and pajamas, changed her diaper, slipped on the ruffled top and then pulled the tutu up to her waist before reaching for the leggings.

"NO! NO! NO PANTS!" she screamed when she was where my hand was headed.

"It's too cold today. You have to wear something under. You aren't even wearing tights."

By this point, her face was covered with snot and tears and she was convulsing.

This wasn't the first of its kind. The battles started a few weeks ago when she watched Cinderella for the first time during our Friday movie night. To teach our son some lessons on compromising, we told him that his sister would choose the movie that night. We had never watched a "girlie" movie before and our choices were limited to a set of Disney DVDs that my husband and son had impulsively purchased during a Costco trip.

She hadn't really sat through a whole movie before, not feature length anyway. She usually watches for about 20 minutes and then scuttled around from one toy to the next, like a butterfly dancing from flower to flower. Not this time. She sat in the crook of Jeff's arm, from the opening scene to the credits, eyes popped open, jaw dropped, completely mesmerized.

The next morning, after I dropped off my son at preschool, we passed a random stranger. Seeing S dressed in her poofy tutu, the lady flashed S a big smile and said, "Hello, little Princess." After the lady passed, S turned to me and said, "Mama, she said I'm a Princess!" That evening, S came up to me as I stood at the kitchen sink and proclaimed, "I am a Princess now."

I never worried about having a princess for a daughter. When my friends read articles and blog posts about the pitfalls of exposing your daughters to princess-dom and proclaimed their boycott of all things princess-related, I didn't pay much attention. Surely, they are over-reacting, I thought. We felt safe knowing that our daughter has an older brother, who had to date not been exposed to any girlie movies or toys. Our house was filled with legos and train tracks, and we had no more room for more toys. Besides, what were the odds of having a princess daughter?

When growing up, I had no delusions of royalty. I was the chubby kid with the bowl hair-cut.  I was the ugly one in the family. No one told me, but it was obvious by the way my sister got all the attention for being cute. I didn't like to wear skirts because I had thick calves. I didn't even dare dream of being a cheerleader, although one girl in my seventh grade class who was chubbier than me still made the team. (But she knew how to summersault.)  I never made the cut for being a princess in my own life, so how could I have even imagined that I would have a princess daughter? And if I were to have a princess daughter, didn't it mean that I would have to become the wicked witch?

When my daughter's verbal dam burst and she started proclaiming her need for a tutu, I hesitated for a second. I do know a couple of women in real life who are still waiting for their prince charmings to show up and whisk them away. Often, I look at them and think, "Girl, you got so much more going for you than any man could ever do." But when I think about it, these women aren't really waiting around. Not really. They have their lives and careers in order. They have their social lives. They got it together, except that they are waiting for that icing on the cake. What's so bad about that?

I then thought about what my son's preschool teacher told me. She told me that they have some serious problems when the kids want to play act "Frozen" because none of the girls want to play the role of Anna, the younger sister who is the princess and the love interest. All the girls want to play Elsa, the queen with the power. Sometimes, they have to tap one of the boys to play Anna (well, I guess it beats playing the role of Sven). Maybe all these years, all the wanna-be princesses didn't really wanna be princesses after all. Maybe they chose to identify as princesses because all the queens in the old Disney films were wicked and wore ugly dresses.

I also thought about my reaction to Cinderella. How I found her beautiful, how I loved the way all the good creatures around her loved her and came together as a community to help her in her times of need. I felt aggrieved for the injustice she suffered and empathized with her longing for a better life. And when she finally received what was her due -- a return to the kind of life that should have been hers to begin with -- I interpreted the movie to be about social justice. How could I begrudge my daughter for embracing her?

Maybe that is what all these little girls want when they proclaim their desire to be a princess. They want to be the star in their own movie. The good one. The beautiful one. The triumphant one. Isn't that what we all want?

Later that day, I ordered six more tutus for my daughter. One for each day of the week.

Let her have her moments, I say. She can twirl as she wants. And wave her wand. And be as beautiful as she wants to be.

Yes, there are pitfalls in these films. One I may not show my daughter again is The Little Mermaid, which I found to be pretty disturbing. And the role of the pixie in Peter Pan was sexism embodied. But maybe having healthy role models in real life will count for something. And maybe I can strive to be that role model, instead of playing the role of the wicked witch.  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My So-Called So Cal Life

I am utterly failing at building a social life in San Diego. We've been here for three and a half years, and I don't feel like I have many friends in the area that I can count on. The kind of friend you'd keep no matter where you moved on. Three and a half years is a long time to not make friends.

During the first months here, I felt desperate to connect with others. So desperate that my desperation may even have seeped out. Once, Jeff and I were hanging out at a picturesque park right by the cliffs with our dog and our son when a woman, also with a canine and offsprings, stopped to chat with us. It turned out that she too was a lawyer with connection to a high tech company that Jeff was familiar with. On that ground, we were able to chat almost an hour and even exchanged email addresses as we parted. That evening, I made the fatal mistake of inviting her over to our house for a BBQ that weekend. Who in her right mind invites a stranger to her house after one conversation? And who in her right mind would accept an invitation to a stranger's house, especially with her kids in tow? I never heard back from her.

Since then, we've met people -- once we made the effort to venture out of our house, after carefully covering our eyes with sunglasses to let them adjust to the glaring sun -- at meetup groups, at my son's school, at local playgrounds. We have worked on honing our small-talk skills, being careful to banter with wit and share some revealing tidbits about ourselves while striking the careful balance not to reveal too much. I have made some effort to blend in with the locals, taking the time to blow-dry my hair in the morning and refraining from grimacing whenever talk of Botox or God surfaces. I pet their dogs, and I ask their children's age. I smile knowingly when someone mentions a TV show. I ooh and aah over designer purses and even the make of their cars. I volunteer at my son's school.

Sometimes, these efforts seem fruitful. We've been invited to dinners, to playgroups, to Easter egg hunts. We've chatted tete a tete with other parents and exchanged jokes with people across the table. I've even had ongoing text exchanges with some of them, and even befriended them on Facebook.

But on days like today, these seem like nothing other than white noise. Mere clutter to fill up the time, to mask my failure to make real connections that are so elusive even under the best of circumstances.

The conditions I am living in are far from ideal. I am an alien in Southern California. I grew up on the East Coast. I wear too much black. I have never had plastic surgery, unless you count the laser removal of some moles on my face. My boobs are my own. I don't own a bikini. I easily weigh 20 pounds more than the average local mom. I did not have children in my 20s. I don't like beer. I am not familiar with any sports teams. I don't watch TV. I am not blond. I place a premium on being genuine and reliable. I like to talk about books and current events.

When I complain to Jeff, he says, "Well, I don't have friends either, but I have you and the kids. That's all I need." Well, I need friends. Especially girlfriends that I can talk to, about things that deeply matter to me. I'm not sure if it's a function of having grown up as an immigrant in this country, but I also need to be around people who mirror some part of who I am, someone who by his or her sheer existence can serve as a validation of my own perception and experience. Maybe I'm asking for too much...

I've instead had the opposite experiences. At least once a week, I feel invisible. Sometimes, people seem to see through me, and I don't think it's just me being overly sensitive. I could be picking up my son at school, and people I know look past me to greet someone else behind me. The other day, I realized it's the way I sometimes look past landscapers mowing a lawn or construction workers hauling debris on a construction site. I don't really see them. They are mere fixtures in a scene, with no individual identity. They cannot serve me any purpose -- and cannot possibly have any connection to me.

Ever since my sister estranged me, I've become more insecure and needy. Every failure to connect with someone seems to validate my deep fear -- that I'm flawed, that I lack the skills to manage myself socially, that I'm not enough to merit someone else's time. That insecurity and fear make me frigid, socially unengaged. They bind me in an unhealthy circle of not even wanting to reach out, to bother to try to connect with others. A cranky voice in the back of my mind wonders what the point is anyway.

We've talked about moving back to San Francisco -- where I felt so much at home, where I had many treasured friends. But when we visit, I know it's no longer our home. Our friends have moved on with their lives. The schools suck. The restaurants don't have high chairs. Everyone moves to Marin or to the East or South Bay anyway -- and what's the point of living in a more expensive suburb where you have to drive two hours to visit friends?

The other day, I chatted with a dad in my daughter's gymnastics class. A large African-American man who told me that he grew up as an orphan, a ward of three different states. Despite all that, he managed to put himself through college and went to law school, and worked at a corporate law firm in New York before moving to San Diego not too long ago. He told me that most of the kids he had known growing up are now either dead or incarcerated. I had seen him before, chatting and laughing with the other moms in the class. Watching him made me wonder how he could fit in so well when I seem to be struggling so much.

I don't have a solution, but I do want to smack the self-pity out of myself. To just buck up and figure it out. Maybe I just need to make myself more agreeable. Or less rigid. Or have a better sense of humor. Or turn blond.

If all fails, I guess we can start importing some friends down here.

I know it's not as bleak - or as black and white as I've painted it to be. There are people I can call, people I can grab a drink with. People who will respond if I needed help. People with good hearts and warm intentions. But do they get me, and do I get them? Here, at this stage of my life, there are so many variables at play. I'm not exposed to the same demographics as I was when I met people through work or school. I'm now a mom, and I don't have the time to nurture friendships as I once had. The moms I am meeting are in the same boat. You are busy, they are busy. They work. They don't have the same aged children as you do, or if they do, their children are overly aggressive toward yours. Neither of you has time to nurture your interests the way you used to. It's hard to find the time to sit down and talk when you spend all your time chasing after your two year old. Your friendships can only go so far talking about parenting techniques. I know all that. But knowing doesn't change your reality -- or make the shortcomings more palatable.

But I do remind myself that it took me four years to feel settled when I first moved to San Francisco. That is some comfort. And it takes time to build depth in any relationship. Maybe it's patience I need to nurture -- and some self-confidence. And to remind myself that I survived relocations to New York, Houston, Chicago, D.C., and San Francisco, many on my own. Could this one be that much worse?