“Do we find in suffering our shared humanity? Through our wounding do we understand our own limitations and forgive the limitations of others?”

-Joe Wilkins

My brother and I have never been friends.   We simply don’t understand each other. There is a mutual misunderstanding that pulses between us and awakens a primordial need to convince the other that our way is the better, or best, way to conduct oneself.  Neither of us are happy with this kink in our adult lives. But both of us have been powerless to do much about it.

There have been times where we have come close to sharing the warmth of mutual understanding. Watershed experiences mercifully provided the proverbial glass-of-water-in-the-desert relief to our thirst for friendship. Since I am four years my brother’s senior, I walked through these moments first, my baby brother grinning and supporting me, as I would, in turn, do for him.

Attending college granted us peace in our twenties. Our primary and secondary educations lacked the essential connection between academic achievement and nurturing that is prevalent in contemporary education. If we didn’t achieve, if we needed academic help, we weren’t applying ourselves, trying hard enough, or, in my case, simply not smart enough.  Our resulting painful, near-shameful academic insecurities made earning our bachelor’s degrees seem impossible at times. We transferred schools, changed majors, tried to quit, and, as a result, got our asses kicked by our mom who would not let us quit. During these years we connected. There were several conversations about how much a class or college life in general sucks. On the eve of our cousin’s wedding, the family having come together in the south from several points north, my brother and I were so mired in schoolwork, we stayed in our hotel room all day and plowed through piles of papers and books typical of a weekend’s worth of assignments. Family members regarded our absence as rude. And they came to our room to tell us as much. We delighted in their surprise when they saw that the Chiarini kids were doing schoolwork. This was an anomaly. As was being locked down in a hotel room, he struggling with calculus and I agonizing over an essay. That day, we were academic equals. We were suffering on an equal level, in a similar situation, working towards a common goal. We had mutuality in our suffering.

Our weddings were another day where we stood together. There is a picture of my brother and I on my wedding day; he is holding one of the bridesmaid’s bouquets, grinning broadly, his arm thrown over my shoulder.  Another anomaly. He has never been physically affectionate towards me. It’s his nature – he’s an emotional carbon copy of our father. That day, however, he was completely out of his usual reserved shell. He was being silly, so much so that he busted out some slick breakdancing moves at the after party in the hotel lounge. He choreographed photo ops and cracked jokes with my ex-husband’s groomsmen, whom he had just met. My memory of him from that day is one of vibrancy. A vibrancy I hadn’t seen before and have not seen since.  But this was not an easy day for my brother. He knew, really knew, that I was marrying the wrong man. And even more difficult for him, as I would learn a decade later when we sat down for dinner and I told him the marriage was over, was his knowledge that he had to let me make this mistake. He knew that if he opened his mouth, I would have shut him down, as is typical of anyone in a similar situation. What my brother would learn at that dinner was that I, too knew I was marrying the wrong man on my wedding day and was wishing someone would set me straight.  We were equally wounded, aware of our limitations and the limitations of the other.

I’d like to say that becoming parents was a milestone that brought us closer, but, sadly, it caused some fissures in the already tenuous bond. My children are adopted, proudly and by choice. While the medical complications that would have ravaged my body were revealed after the adoptions, I knew, simply, deeply that pregnancy was not the path I was meant to take. This confounded my brother. And while he loves his niece and nephew, and shows no prejudice towards them, when the subject of their biological families, with whom I have close friendships, comes up, his face twists and reveals his still-unresolved perplexity. That face is familiar to me, and I want to slap it off his head when it arrives. Instead, I catch myself, stop talking about them, and fall silent. In my head I am screaming, “you asshole! Why is this such a problem for you?” I can only hope my face doesn’t reveal my anger. I can’t imagine, though, that it doesn’t. And the fissures grow.

I rub his nerves raw, make him defensive, and cause him anger. We have had the same fight again and again. A couple of years ago, I was cleaning out boxes bulging with books and papers from college. In one, I found emails from him chastising me for my personality, for being who I am; painful words that I had heard from him, in varying iterations, many times. I sat heavily on the floor, chewing my lip.

He doesn’t like my personality. It is no different from the guys who dumped me because I wasn’t their type, or from the women who find me exhausting. Some people simply don’t care to be friends with certain people, with me. It’s not my fault; and it’s not my responsibility to convince them that I am worth knowing and liking, which I had, in painful desperation, spent too much of my life doing. What I once took very personally and allowed to gash deep, bloody holes inside me, I have slowly come to learn not to take it personally.  My brother and I share DNA. But if we didn’t, if we had randomly met as people without familial ties do, we probably still wouldn’t get along. While I don’t like this, even wish it could be different, this simple conclusion has brought me peace both in the relationship I have with my brother as well as with others. It’s nothing personal.

This didn’t stop us from clashing. Historically, our fights are furious and uncompromising. They are ugly.  This recent conflict had the potential to be a repeat of history. I saw the patterns emerging. I recognized the futility of the situation. I felt a familiar urge to defend, demean, wound, and attempt to shatter him; my anger bubbled to the brim, acidic and sharp. I didn’t want to let my destructive, primordial urges take control. I knew they would, though; I have since learned my limitations. And, as such, I recognized the limitations of our relationship. It’s nothing personal. So rather than trying to talk it out, which never worked, I walked away. I abruptly collected my children and, equally abruptly, left the restaurant where we clashed. I needed, desperately, not to convince or plead for understanding, which was nothing short of self-torture, but to protect myself and get away.

I sat in the small rental car, breathing deeply, encouraging my heart to stop racing. My children, having heard my brother yell at me, were thankful that we left.  I listened to their chatter, their lack of fear, sadness or confusion and felt a calm, sad certainty that walking away was the only recourse.

Five days later my brother sent me an email. In it, apology was twisted with self-pity and bound around put-downs and insults.

It hurt. And made me angry. And made me sad. For in his angry words, I saw myself, my own words, as I would have spoken them a few years ago. I felt the scars of twenty-year-old wounds throb. I drafted a furious, cold-hearted reply rife with mutual insults and then quickly hit ‘delete.’ The old wounds’ painful throbbing eased. Then I carefully drafted a reply that reflected what I would have needed – words that were sincere, simple, and kind, not defensive or confrontational, devoid of points meant to enlighten or attempts to change opinions. It wasn’t an easy reply to draft, and, two days later, I still haven’t sent it. His email revealed that my brother is struggling with the same pain that very recently knocked me so low as to have me contemplate taking my life. I need to tread lightly, to be supportive. To not fall prey to my familiar, destructive patterns. The past three years have forced me to self-examine and probe some ugly places inside me. I had to acknowledge my limitations and forgive myself. As such, I am able to see past the anger and the insults in his words, to further understand my limitations, and to forgive him his limitations caused by his suffering that might one day bring us to mutuality.

It’s Food, Not Love

I fired my seamstress seven months ago. She closed her dry cleaning shop early, without warning, the day before New Year’s Eve, thus holding my fabulous NYE 2011 party dress captive. This sent me screeching to Nordstrom, shell-shocked kids in tow, to find a new dress for the party. It wasn’t just the one dress this one time; although she does beautiful tailoring at a reasonable price, she is terrible at meeting deadlines. Promised dates for pick up were often pushed back again and again. I was generously discounted for my patience. But my patience wore thin on December 30th. On January third, I turned in my last ticket, collected my tailoring and dry cleaning, and left her.

Her absence didn’t have much of an impact on me until now. As part of my back-to-school ritual, I try on my ‘grown-up’ clothes, after months of lounging in t-shirts, tank tops, bathing suits and tattered shorts, to get a feel for what needs to be replaced, altered, augmented, donated or dry cleaned. This year, I am feeling her absence as my son is feeling the absence of his newly lost tooth.  This year, all my pants are too tight. I need to have the trousers she so lovingly altered in, let out.

Last year was a wonderful year. After making many difficult and necessary changes within myself, I realized the woman I am outside a marriage – independent, resilient, confident. My children and I grew closer as a result of my spiritual connection to myself, and my acknowledgement of the need to nurture myself. I did yoga frequently. I meditated. I dated, had my heart broken, recovered and learned from rather than resented the breakage.

I was happy, and as a reflection, I lost weight…35 pounds. It slipped off my body as my unhappiness slipped away from memory. I brought armfuls of clothes to my seamstress, who exclaimed, “These clothes! They are too big! Why did you get them so big?” I laughed and explained that they used to fit me, snugly. I couldn’t stop grinning. I was now a slip of a woman at 125 pounds, size 4-6.

The weight loss also put me in the holy graces of my doctors. My blood sugar levels had dropped and stabilized, which meant I could stay off insulin and continue to treat my Type I Diabetes with medication.  Delicately, for several years, my endocrinologist had been mentioning that if I lost a few pounds, I’d see an improvement in my HgA1C’s. He knew I was exercising aggressively, and that I was frustrated. But he had to do his job. When he saw me, six months later and 35 pounds lighter, he was both pleased at my accomplishment and visibly relieved that the awkward ‘weight speech’ could be skipped.

Due to sudden, nearly unbearable stress, more weight fell off – fifteen pounds in two months’ time. I looked gaunt. It wasn’t a healthy loss.  Then I began to get sick – a three-week flu, followed immediately by a cold that lasted a month. Pneumonia. Bronchitis. A sinus infection. I spent about six months sick. My weight had bottomed out at 110 pounds; I was too thin. My internist determined that a healthy weight range for me is 120-125 and told me to get there as quickly and safely (read: no junk food) as possible. I followed doctor’s orders and gained weight. Ten pounds slathered on my ass and waist easily. Too easily. 5 more pounds followed. Then seven more. Now, I am fluctuating by 8-12 pounds over my ideal weight; This has smacked my emotions back to some dark days when my five-foot frame carried 160 pounds, and everything I owned fit my gelatinous body tightly.

Those 12 pounds got here through something more powerful than laziness or gluttony. They are here because of a need for comfort. I eat to comfort myself. Technically, it’s called emotional eating. I call it weakness. The frustration emotional eating causes pushes me into a depression. So I eat to combat the sadness. And I gain weight. And my blood sugar levels rise. So I get scared and even more depressed. So I eat more and move less because depression staples my thighs to the couch and tunes into “Toddlers and Tiaras” which renders me incapable of switching off the TV to do yoga or Pilates. It’s a painful, vicious cycle to be in and to watch. My friends and family are afraid to say anything when they see me reaching for a second or third helping at dinner. They know it will shame me if they comment, and I’ll eat more to comfort myself out of feeling shamed. Which will frustrate me. And around it goes.

This summer was unusual. It didn’t have the gentle ebb and flow my summers at the Jersey shore usually enjoy. My parents and I shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. We chose words carefully or avoided them altogether lest the wrong word were to tap a hole in the flimsy walls keeping the sadness in.

My brother and his family moved across the country in July. We have never been this far apart. The life we had known has been cut short, altered. It’s different and sad. My dad has been in terrible pain from aggressive osteoarthritis in his ankle. He can’t walk very well. Mom has been keeping everyone calm and happy and organized. She has run herself ragged getting my brother and his family packed and moved while taking care of my father. This is her role in the family, but it’s taking its toll on her.  I had my own angst. The beginning of my MFA writer’s residency program was approaching frighteningly fast. I was battling my self-esteem demons, and losing.  There were other woes as well…financial, social, negotiations with the ex. These changes, emotions and insecurities rendered me sleepless and sent me to the refrigerator on late-night snacking binges, bringing me to my current quandary.

While I miss the smaller sizes and loose-fitting trousers, it’s the decline of my health that tortures me when I see the 130’s stare at me from the digital readout of my scale. I can’t feel the Diabetes killing me, but I know it is. And I know how I got here. When I’m away from the scale, my tight pants are an uncomfortable reminder that I failed myself. Again. I have learned to identify the difference between emotional hunger and stomach hunger. I have yet to learn how to deny my emotional hunger. Or how to satisfy that hunger – the yearning.  Each day I whisper to myself, “today you will stop yourself.” But, like the addict too soon out of a twelve-step program, I relapse.  And I start over.

The Long Answer is Your Story

I sat in the dark chapel, blurry-eyed and bone-weary from an emotional morning, waiting for the 12:15 concert to start. Earlier, as part of a writing exercise that asked us to explore the short and long answers to a question, where the long answer is your story, a classmate asked me, “What is it like to be a single mom? To work so hard for your family by going to school and working two jobs?” It was an honest question – one I ask myself several times a day, but I had yet to answer.  Our mentor rang her Buddhist Meditation Bell to signal the beginning of the short answer.

The concert began; the opening notes of Debussy’s Clair De Lune met me gently and took me to my children’s nursery. I played a classical lullaby CD for them during their fist couple years of life. Clair De Lune was in the middle of the CD, so I often heard the delicate notes late at night when it was my turn to drift off to sleep.

“Short answer, I don’t know how it feels. I’m on autopilot. I just tuck my head and get through my days as best I can.” I smiled weakly. The meditation bell rang gently, signaling it was time to provide the long answer.

The associations of Clair De Lune to my children as infants, to being married, to being a family are strong. Although I relish the pleasure of self-knowledge and have learned to cope with the pain of solitude, life was somewhat easier when I was playing the classical CD at night. I was young, my marriage was young, and the children were young. We had so much promise. Futures lay ahead pockmarked with possibilities. They were hopeful days.

“It sucks.” Began my long answer. I fumbled to my bag for a tissue because I was already crying. “It’s absolutely brutal.” I sobbed. “It’s not how I imagined my life would be. I never thought I’d get divorced. I never wanted to be divorced, but I also knew I was marrying the wrong person. But I still tried so hard to make it work. And I’m tired. I’m tired all the time, but I have to keep going because my children are depending on me. And people expect so much of me. And it didn’t have to be this way. My ex dumped 60 grand of debt on me – the adoption bills. He put all that on my shoulders. He walked away with no debt. I got slammed. I can’t pay my bills. I have to work two jobs even though that finds me still working at 2 a.m. when I’m so exhausted, I’m unable to form a coherent thought.”

Debussy’s familiar pauses and chords unhinged a latch, and discharged residual pain that didn’t surface during my classroom confessional. I lurched for my bag and unsteadily left the cold chapel. I felt crazed; anger and sadness and resentment made me dizzy. The memory of where I once was and the facts of where I am came together, finally, and took me down.  I felt drunk, disassociated.

The long answer came rumbling out before I could stop it. I blurted out facts I don’t talk about. Expensive cosmetics and well-tailored clothing have done a fine job of presenting me as put-together and well rested. Yoga and meditation taught me how to appear calm and centered and how to keep the gorge from rising to the back of my throat when I panic about all the tomorrows spread in front of me. It works. No one ever suspects otherwise, which was obvious as my group members sat in silent mourning, my words hanging like rainclouds. “Yay!” I exclaimed, breaking the spell of awkwardness. “This is fun! Thanks D–!”

After my outpouring, as we funneled from our classroom, my friend and classmate, Magin, said that what I did was great and that women need to be more honest about their feelings. I told her I disagree; she bristled. I explained, “When you are honest about your feelings, it isolates you. Sadness is a blockade between people.” She agreed.  She walked closer than usual to me as we left the building.

People are leaving the chapel. The concert has ended. It must be 1:00. I can’t bring myself to go to lunch with my merry band of fellow MFA misfits yet. I’m tucked away on the grass, near a large tree – I was walking to my Jeep, intent on going home, but I sat to think, and I stayed. From where I sit, I can see them walking towards the cafeteria. The tree shelters me from sight. Secretly, I want someone to see me, to come over and talk to me, to comfort me. I went somewhere I wasn’t strong enough to go this morning.  And now I’m tired. And I can’t ask for help.

A few deep yoga breaths will give me the spiritual energy that will get me through the rest of my afternoon. I’ll go to lunch, drop my bag on the floor by the table where my friends and I sit, smile weakly and say, “I’m fine!” Drama over. Let’s move on.

And I will, indeed, move on.

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