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Buddhadharma : Winter 2006
winter 2006| 96 |buddhadharma GrowinG up with the belle of the ball by barbara Gates mikeholmes asan adolescent – which I remained in many ways through my twen- ties – I was often so angry with my mother that I would slap her face and pull her hair. Appalled, I eventually redirected my impulses into hurling foul epithets. I’d like to say that my anger subsided when I began to meditate, but it wouldn’t be true. In my thirty-plus years of practice, it’s been a slow journey, replete with reversals, to the place where I am now able to convert that entrenched rage into the possibility of insight and kindness. To my mother’s credit, she has sur- vived my maltreatment and is flourishing at eighty-six. For my part, I am now inti- mately involved in the daily turns of her life. With anticipation and, yes, tender- ness, I call her every morning in Manhat- tan (where she and I were born and bred) from Berkeley (to which I escaped many years ago). Who would have thought that our relations could be so radically trans- formed? These days I am trying to figure out how it happened. Most intractable has been my habit of blaming. In my early years of medi- tation, occluded memories came back to me, evidence for a case against Mom. On the deck of a transatlantic steamer, a stolid-faced little me in a double-buttoned coat grips the hand of my recently jilted mother, who is off for a year of romance in Europe. When we arrive, she abandons me to a series of abusive signorinas and a hotel maid who nearly throws me into Lac Leman. Returning memories like this release buttoned-up terror and bitter accusations. When I became a mother myself, Mom and I would argue long-distance over how best to raise a child. With each conflict, my catalogue of her offenses grew. Finally, something inside me cracked open, went blank. Through meditation I dropped the hope that this mother to whom I was born would ever be the one I longed for: a supermom who would protect me from life’s meanness, heartache, and catastro- phe. I began to meet the mother I have with a neutrality that shocked us both. Mom began to comment on how well we were getting along, while I secretly won- dered if I loved her less. Gradually, I came to appreciate my mother independent of our relationship, as a person in the world: a vibrant, opin- ionated, optimistic belle of the ball, her head held high in hauteur and chutzpah. What an antidote to blame this was, to my litany of how she had let me down! I started to see that what she had said, done,orfailedtodo–tomeorforme – didn’t really have anything to do with me at all. When Mom turned eighty, I began to record her oral history. She described her own mother in scathing words: “Every- thing had to revolve around her, the belle of the ball!” It was uncanny. The very expression I had so often used to describe my mom, she used to describe hers. I remembered my free-spirited grand- mother, who on hearing Emma Gold- man speak, ran away from home in revolt against her own overly loving mom. How reminiscent of my own daughter in her early teens, incensed by my overzealous mothering as I tracked her with a cell phone from mall to mall! Looking at these mirror indictments – not enough mother versus too much – I real- ized that in some way, it doesn’t matter which dynamic is at play. Mother daughter mother daughter mother: the relationship itself seems a succession of rebellions, cycli- cal and impersonal. I see that my daugh- ter/mother anger doesn’t have to do with Mom, per se. The revelations gleaned from silent practice have brought a softening toward my mother, toward myself as a mother, towards all mothers. Daughters, too. Now I am able to access these insights even in the thick of a mother-daughter fight, whether with my daughter or my mom. In holding my tongue (no mean task for a New Yorker!), I’ve noticed the shifting, empty nature of conflict. Last year I rushed East to care for Mom, who was in the hospital with double pneu- monia. Always so robust and stylish, there she lay with tubes in her nose, her skin pallid, wrists bony, white hair thinning to reveal her skull. I brought her home, cooked her meals, dressed and bathed her. On the last day of my visit, she overheard my instructions to the aide she’d begrudg- ingly hired. Eyes igniting, she rose in her chair, her body in an all-too-familiar pos- ture, imperious and fierce: “How dare you be so officious!” she hissed. How dare she speak to me this way, after I’d dealt with doctors and lawyers, even hand-washed her underwear!? It took all the discipline I could muster not to shout or lunge at her. Every cell in my body moved toward an explosion, threatening to obliterate our progress. But I stood silent, jaw clamped, feeling the fury ricochet inside me until some- thing began to soften. There she was – my spirited mom – spine erect, neck long, chin tilted in pride. Then I remembered. Her defiance didn’t have to do with me; my upset didn’t have to do with her. And the angry energy that seemed to be driving me, where was it? It didn’t have to do with anger; it was transmuting into something trembling and sweet, thanks to all those years of practice. BarBara Gates is co-editor of the journal InquIrIng MInd and the author of AlreAdy HoMe: A TopogrApHy of SpIrIT And plAce (shamBhala PuBlications). journeys