Season 3, 001: What messages did you receive from family, community, institutions when growing up? What was praised? What punished?
The Parable of the Ladder Maker
Words make formidable fences, rising to tower above us, easily reinforced with yet more words if they prove not to be sufficiently strong.
My parents made their fences from sentences that started “People like us don’t…” and for 14 years I contentedly lived behind those fences, made secure by other words that encouraged me to ‘Work hard at school” and “Look for a good job”. I was never conscious of the contradiction at the heart of that domestic claustrophobia. I was stifled within the fences.
Until I found that beyond the fence there was the possibility of a life spent more easily outdoors. I met people who appeared not to recognise those same fences; who walked, and ran, and climbed, and swam and talked of places that existed only in my dreams. They led me to believe that words could also be used to make ladders, indeed that words were in many ways better suited to fashioning ladders than building fences. I decided to become a ladder-maker.
Suddenly discovering that they had raised a ladder-maker came as a shock to my parents. They raised their fences higher and made impassioned statements “People like us can’t have lives beyond the fence”. I challenged them, showing them my story-ladders, “I met somebody who….”, “It’s really cheap to go….” “I’m reading this book…” My challenges only seemed to provoke them, I had to acknowledge that for some reason they needed the fences that I was trying so hard to leave behind.
Finally, at 16, my story-ladders grew stronger and higher than their fences, I traded the security of their home for the uncertain freedoms of independence, knowing that when I encountered other fences, in other places, my story-ladders were always a means of escape.
Oh, the messages we receive as children! The confusion of them! The stickiness! And let’s be honest, a certain reality of them. The reality of that time, place, family, a state of mind …. One message immediately springs to mind. It was a message from my dad that shaped my early years like no other. It was a meme of my childhood. It was like a sticker with no small print, or a story behind it, or an explanation.
That’s the trouble with memes, they rarely come with a context. They don’t inspire questioning and feeling around them. The message often made me freeze with fear, it kept me quiet, it kept me locked in my bedroom. But also, it kept me reading, dreaming, craving for a better and safer place to be. Ultimately it did lead me to questioning too but that was much later. And acceptance… later still. The message still haunts me and follows me around, but I can look at it with different eyes, because now I can see a bigger picture and a story behind it.
“It takes one second to make the wrong decision. That one second could ruin your whole life”. You can’t really argue with that. I just wish he realised that years of fear can also cause irreparable damage.
My father was a big man ; a nineteen twenties man, an out of wedlock man who shone with a harsh light. A price tag hung around his neck that displayed his worth. A birth certificate name missing man - who turned into a disapproving man. The poem I presented to him aged sixteen never reached his consciousness; it broke apart and blew away in his huff! of disapproving breath. He was a sabotaged man - a branded man.
I lived for the gentler strokes of education which opened up avenues of possibilities; helped me to rationalise and dismantle the harmful scaffolding I was building up inside. Gave me the strength in later years to wrap up my father in forgiveness as time wore him down and mellowed his malice.
I journeyed through acts of healing; felt the flow of voices piercing my adolescent weaknesses. I sifted through tangled feelings and the unvarnished response of others. The weight and gravity of choices emptied out a version of me.
The metalwork teacher forged a haven in his workshop at school; that wise old scroller of steel fed me a dialogue of support and understanding. I hit the anvil hard- beat out life's rhythm, shaping steel and skin. " Hit it harder!" he cried, " it's the wrong shape." I was hitting it harder but from the inside- hammering out my imperfections- trying to harden my resolve.
The price of battling disapproval and bending the knee de-stabilized me; deepened my resentments and internalised an un-keeled form of me; but the soft skim of a girlfriend's smile gave this libran some balance; softened the brittleness crystallising within. The snatcher of smiles threw me into uncertainty and I veered into the unknown only to be rescued by loving hands. I witnessed and I was in my turn witnessed.
“Where’s the other 3%?” I was asked. I’d just got 97% on my maths exam – I can’t remember if it was a particularly important exam, but even if it wasn’t, I was so proud. I couldn’t wait to tell him. It still makes my eyes prickle, over 30 years on. I wasn’t good enough. And that started it – or maybe it didn’t, maybe it had started earlier. Actually, definitely.
Two fathers, this from was my stepfather who lived with us; my real father lived with my stepfather’s family. Unusual to swop fathers with a best friend, but that is what happened when we were little. Two fathers, two families each with two children. Hearing how great the other two children were, how talented, sporty, musical, academic – hearing their achievements both from my father when he visited, and from my stepfather when he returned from his visit, the same night. In hearing how amazing the other children were, I heard how I was not.
It didn’t occur to wonder then, but I do wonder more recently - if the other children heard the same about me & my sister. Received and internalised the same message. We don’t have a relationship with the living other child to ask; and the best friend died relatively recently, no longer a friend for many years before that. I believe she felt as I did though. The father died long ago. The stepfather has revealed so much grief, loss and trauma it makes me ache for him.
So there won’t be apologies from either of them, but I have eventually found forgiveness anyway. For these fathers, for all of us children. Maybe we all got things wrong. But maybe, actually definitely, we were all always good enough.
Thread, prod, pull. Thread, prod, pull.
My first rag rug starts to take shape. Scraps of material reformed into a shaggy design, unique to me. Choosing to do something for fun, despite one part of my brain repeatedly poking- “get your nose to the grindstone.”
He wanted me to have a better life. More chances. Less struggle.
Scarcity drove the voices of his ancestors from the far reaches of Ireland and Eastern Europe, telling him, “you’d better buckle down.”
It worked for a while. Until he couldn’t stop. Couldn’t say no.
Psychologists talk about ways we can loosen ourselves from the grip of our mental schema- learn to quieten the reverberations of the past that influence our relationships, feelings and actions.
I dip my hand into the box of fabric strips and draw out a harlequin of colour. Begin again. Thread, prod, pull; thread, prod, pull. Soothed by the rhythm, there are times when I can set the rug aside and allow my fingers to sink into its soft strands.
Longing makes the early bird wake to sing the light into being, to sing for territory, to sing for a mate, also to kill the worm. Birds long for the north and then the south. Women often long to be birds. My great grandma saw yellow finches after her stroke. My grandma never had a bird feeder, too much mess, brings mice, can’t be bothered, your pap will get upset. My mom arranged ceramic birds in a curio. They told me I held the promise of change. No one knew the disruption it would create. I once saw a hawk swoop down and snatch a sparrow, at night I hear the begging call of the great horned owl.
For a long time I believed I had to have been adopted, more truthfully, I wanted a different history. Perhaps I was a changeling swapped at birth in a strange hospital mix-up or left by mischievous Faery folk. I only had to look in the mirror, the curve of my face, the blue knowing eyes, to see my mother and grandmother reflected there. The truth was clear to see.
Whatever the story I told myself I did not feel that I belonged to this family, I felt so different it was hard to imagine that I was of the same bloodline. My ancestors are hardy folk, pioneers that left familiar people and places , to travel to a new world on the other side of many oceans.
These were woman, who heavily pregnant trudged through thick mud in long skirts, toddler on the hip in a strange land where there was nothing they knew as home and hearth. The men cut trees and worked many days and nights. There was always something to do and someone had to do it. Their hardworking ethic, the grim determination, is etched into my bones, handed down as a blessing and a curse.
I was a free-spirited nature child. I sang to the trees. Danced endless hours with the nature beings, both seen and unseen. I rescued injured birds and stray cats. I cried for the hurt animals and was sick at the sound of trees being felled. Not exactly a practical match for a generation's old farming family.
The unspoken family motto was “If you are not working you are not worthwhile”. Even the definition of working was narrowed by convention and conformity. The slow cold creeping mist of this legacy began to rise as I left childhood and I succumbed.
I have been surrounded by much more than my fair share of people with very little curiosity and imagination, let alone ambition and determination. All my life I have heard that ‘it can’t be done’, ‘it’s too difficult’, ‘you won’t make it’, ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’. From ‘don’t take that job, the bus ride is too long’ to ‘what would you want to go to university for?’. The amount of bad (often unsolicited) advice I have been given throughout my life is astonishing. Exasperating. And the effort it has taken me to quieten these voices down and grow as someone conscious of living on a beautiful planet full of possibilities has been huge. It took me a while, but now I mostly follow my instinct and it has not failed me yet.
I will never forget a conversation I had about Revolutionary Road (the Sam Mendes film based on the wonderful novel by Richard Yates). I was discussing it with a colleague who was becoming a friend, someone I thought was one of the most adventurous people I knew. In the story, Frank and April Wheeler have a troubled marriage and he complains constantly about the dull job he has to hold to support the family; so, April comes up with a perfect, practical plan that would allow them to move to Paris, where she would support them and Frank would be free to chase his dreams. My colleague did not understand how April could think it would work out: ‘But she had it all perfectly planned!’, I can still hear myself saying in a heated tone. Frank was clearly just not up to the challenge. My almost friend and I have not spoken in years, with the exception of one Facebook interaction when someone died. Life really is too short.
Yes, well, but you didn’t top all the subjects.
You’ve won the prize! Straighten your hair up before you go on stage.
How will anyone ever know how smart you are if you only study arts?
And so, every success was a failure and nothing that I did was ever good enough. I was never good enough.
Staring out the window, staring through the pages of a book, staring at the screen. All these ways to be seen to be absorbed in work, in study, in thought. I learned early on that if you appeared to be a certain way then you could fool people into believing it to be so. In the fourth grade, my eyes riveted to an Ancient Egyptian documentary, in part captivated but also knowing that adopting this posture would earn me points, would cement myself in the eyes of the teacher as a serious student. In the high school quadrangle, I would pull out my serious-looking hardback black notebook with the red corners and set to furious scribbling. I would carry my Norton Anthology of Literature face out in my arms as I walked the university campus.
Always with her head in a book; she must be so smart!
You’d think so, wouldn't you?
But in fooling people, I also fooled myself. So I believed that if I only read enough books, studied harder and longer than anyone else, achieved all those top scores, then yes, wasn’t I smart? Wasn’t I worthy? Wasn’t I of value?
I was playing a part and it was exhausting. To this day, I no longer know whether I am being myself or being what I think it is that others want me to be. Actually, that’s a lie. I know - I'm just too scared to drop the facade.
A room made from geraniums, pelargoniums, ferns; from stringy, precious orchids and African violets that seem dead or nothing but one dusty, velvet leaf. Mrs Eaton understands these plants that my family would disregard, that are ‘too much like hard work’, they have no desire to learn new or difficult things. She lets me water the conservatory plants with a small brass watering can and I pretend that I live here as she guides me gently, says kindly, ‘on you go’. She explains how some plants slumber, almost asleep, for months, not quite 100 years she says, smiling, but how clever that I thought of that, remembered the story. One day, she continues, when you are not looking for it, indeed had forgotten it, the plant wakes up and you discover a new green leaf, see that it’s not dead at all or to be thrown away, as things are at our house when they become worn or ‘chatty’. In a misplaced extravagance of the fashionable, much is given up on there, it can feel that I am given up on too, overlooked like one of these violets; perhaps one day I will be a lovely surprise or discovery: I learn how to wait patiently and long.
Heavy curtains unspool to the floor like a reverie. Inside tall windows I read, draw, stare at the sky; clocks tick and chime, somewhere in the house there is music, fruit cake on a china plate that tells a story. I imbibe kindness and attention from Mrs Eaton: it is as if I am real, as if I am here. She encourages me to cultivate my shy self-expression which, untended, is stifled by the weeds and thorns of place and blood ties, what is real and true in me kept from the light.
I can't remember when I first understood that I was different, but I can clearly remember an interaction with the child who lived nearest me on the village street when I was no more than four or five.
"You have no daddy. He died in the war."
Now, I knew I had a daddy but he wasn't part of my life, for reasons I didn't understand at the time. I also knew, even at that young age, that there had been no recent war, but it was evident that in 1980s rural Ireland, some explanation had to be provided for a child without a father.
Having since learned the horrendous fate of many unmarried mothers at that time, packed off to Magdalen laundries and seeing their babies die or be put up for adoption, I consider myself and my mother very lucky not to have faced complete ostracism, such were the prevailing societal values and the messaging of the Catholic church.
Nevertheless, I was the only child in my class in primary school who didn’t have a father, and even the otherwise kindly local shopkeeper seemed to take some pains to always refer to me by my mother’s surname, despite my correcting him on a number of occasions, as she had, unusually registered me under that of my father. I often wonder what that man’s motivation was; could he just not accept that a child born out of wedlock could have her father’s surname, or did he take some perverse pleasure in tormenting that same child?
Lucky though I may have been, and though my mother later married and supplied me with a wonderful father, my difference was apparent to me from a very early age, and that sense of being an outsider has coloured my entire life.
As a small child, I was told to be a “good girl,” a “good little helper,” with my younger sisters. Yet, at almost two, I couldn’t have been much help to my mother, when my mother almost died of mastitis after my sister’s birth. Or at three, at my next sister’s birth. Outwardly I tried to be “good,” but internally I seethed.
I remember holding a tiny soft doll, plush, pastel-colored and sweet and stabbing it with a needle, imagining that it was one of my sisters. Immediately I was filled with a heady, full-body feeling. Red and fierce and full of life. Instead of tiny and helpless, I was all-powerful, huge and strong. Soon, very soon, this fiery feeling was replaced with horror, fear and shock. Someone was going to see through me and know that I was bad. Worse still, I was going to be rejected. Instantly, I pushed down the anger and rage into the deepest recesses of my being.
I began to believe both that I had to be a good girl, meaning be quiet, compliant, don’t take up too much space. And any feelings of anger or rage were not to be expressed, too dangerous. I became a shy child, fearful of my words and my body and the impact they might make on the world around me. These messages of early childhood were reinforced by school and later by work. My own voice and inner life were dangerous and not to be trusted. They were too much. I was too much. I needed a glass wall between me and the world, protecting me from the world but more than that, protecting the world from me. Recently, I have learned to craft healing dolls that speak for me, saying everything, gradually dissolving that wall.
Shush, we don’t talk about that.
I was 15 when I found out that I had a cousin living in my home town that wasn’t allowed to be mentioned. I found out about her on a dark rainy November night in a car park. My uncle ‘couldn’t keep it in his pants’ apparently. Dirty little secret. He was in the navy. ‘Likely a child in every port’ they said. There was also another son, adopted by his sister, my aunt. I grew up with him but didn’t know the truth of his father until I was an adult. Another cousin spent time inside. That wasn’t mentioned either. Shush.
Then there was Auntie Mary, who had a child out of wedlock & the child was raised as her sister. Secret after dusty cobwebbed secret.
My mum had an affair with the neighbour. Over the fence at the back of the house. I remember sitting on the blue metal swing age 9 hearing them whispering and feeling my blood run cold in shock. Shush.
Life we as knew it fell apart soon after. Dad crying on the sofa as my mum took everything.
Shush, we don’t talk about that became the motto for my childhood. A big empty space. We don’t talk about anything. A total lack of clear, guiding voices. My parents. Distant, distracted. Elsewhere.
At 50, I can unravel the empty silence. To parent myself. To talk about everything all the time.
I ask my children ‘how are you? How do you feel? What do you think? What’s important to you? What music do you like? Who are you? What would you like to be when you grow up? Are you ok? Do you need a cuddle? I love you.
The message of silence. Nothing. No words. It was a fierce and uncompromising rejection; it spoke volumes in anger, resentment, and regret. It was a message on its own, held with such authority and cruelty. It was considered and deliberate. Punishment, he said.
Often not seen from a distance, but I felt it as it landed all over me. Dished out for the sheer perverted power of it. He controlled the story then, of his own design. A child plunged into the depths of coldness, ignored and disregarded. Respect, they called it.
What a cruel love. Shaped to suit the perpetrator, just because he couldn’t find it in himself to do the work of love. A lost opportunity for sharing stories, memories, hurt, tenderness. We’ll have to leave you in the dark now, for good, they said.
Give me your words, let me take them in. Tell me more, let me collect and caress them, give them love and understanding. Sit down and share what you are thinking. How can I help you? Talk to me if you need to or fall tenderly into stillness. Of course, speak to me, that’s what I am here for. Come my child if you need me, I am here to listen and share, I say.
" People will talk about you...."
If I heard that now in the context it was said to me four decades ago I would most likely respond wryly, with " Good! - I'm so pleased: acceptance and difference is a beautiful thing"
Back in the late 70s early 80s there was so much prejudice, judgement, ignorance and fear. I wasn't confident, I was scared of what was going to happen to me. I didn't have the narrative, or maturity or experience or have opinions to allow me to be me.
In earlier years, frequently I heard this: "Children should be seen and not heard" so I thought I must be quiet, stay hidden or small. That stuck in my bones for a long time. Even to this day it rises up.
The support or lack of and situations that I leaned in to back then felt very uncomfortable and often toxic, but I didn't know why. I do now, there was no celebration, joy or fun - just a sense of, you're here because you're different. Though these were more the deeply ingrained messages that lived in my head then.
These days I have the confidence and experience to exit anything I'm not comfortable with or speak up, ask questions.
Discussion is good.
I was, I thought, being judged or would be for my choices. I would've loved to tell my younger self then "Wow! - it is brilliant! you are being true to yourself, speaking out, coming out, being visible. You are loved whatever" and tell her of all the fab people and experiences she will meet and have in her life.
Back in my late teens and early twenties I made what were then life changing, life affirming choices with little or no support. I didn't know that then. Life was precarious at times. Not wanting to be heard or having the confidence to speak out.( Actually - I already had ).
Years later I have so much to celebrate and be proud of. I walk a confident, visible path being true to myself. Living a happy, honest, out life..
and people do talk about me too!
The tale I tell is about truth. Who holds the monopoly on truth? Is it the teller or the receiver of the message? Growing up my Italian father would often tell the story of my conception and birth. “We already had two sons and she kept nagging me for a girl. I would tell her: My grandmother had seven sons trying for a girl. Enough is enough.” Except enough wasn’t enough. Only more was enough. After a late night of poker and a guard that was down, I was conceived.
In those days it wasn’t standard practice for a father to be present at the birth of his child. Instead, my birth was announced by a nurse on the end of a phone. My maternal grandmother was in the room with my father. She’d been knitting in pink for months. I pictured my father cupping his hand over the telephone’s speaker and announcing: “It’s a girl”. Excitement in his voice, a heart bursting with pride and happiness. Only to be matched in enthusiasm by my grandmother who, despite her 73-years, jumped nearly as high as the ceiling; I was told.
The message I was given was that I was a longed-for and loved little girl. What better message in the whole wide world to receive? And yet…as time went on amidst the joy, the jealousy, the clamour, the chaos, the fullness and the emptiness of my journey from child to adult, I needed to test the weight of expectation that accompanied my being in the world, to fully understand its limitations and to know my version of its truth.