January 7, 2018

Ringing in the New Year

Last week, cleaning out closets that hadn’t been touched in 25 years, I found a ring my father had made for me almost 50 years ago. I couldn’t bear to wear it for all that time. Wearing it reminded me of terrible things, things I didn’t want to remember. I tried for a time after my children were born to talk with my father, my mother, and my siblings about my – our – experiences. But they had no curiosity about hearing more, only denials, outrage that I should talk out loud about my experience, and discounting recommendations to seek help, since I must be “crazy.”  So, rather than deny my experience, I sadly put my father and mother and siblings away from me. I tried to place my memories of them in solitary confinement, while building a healthy, vibrant life for myself and my children, and doing the inner work that would allow me, eventually, to forgive them. I have felt at peace with all of this for nearly 20 years. I have felt at one with God, with myself, and with those in my life whom I love and who love me, recently including  my brother and sister-in-law who have reconnected with me.

Before getting to the closets I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching that we cannot get our fathers out of us. We cannot get our mothers out of us. They are present in every cell of our bodies. Of course I knew this on a genetic level. But Thay meant more than that. He meant that they “inter-are” with us, that they are present within us. That we are them! But I had been doing exactly the opposite for the last 50 years – trying to get my father, my mother, out of me. Trying to build a life with the memory of them cut out of it.

Thay taught about conversations he had with his own father in meditation, how he would start by addressing his father as “Daddy.” I thought to myself, “Well, you didn’t have an abusive father.” I couldn’t imagine calling my father “Daddy.” But while Thay didn’t give any details, he did imply that things were difficult between him and his father. He told of the day when he finally felt inwardly at peace with his father. “Daddy,” he said, “we have succeeded.” He considered coming into peace a joint effort, and a joint achievement, that belonged to both him and his father. Because his father still lived within him.

This story flayed my heart open. I think that, even in the act of forgiving my father, I had never acknowledged the sorrow of losing “Daddy.” I noticed my one soft memory of him. I’m 6 years old and have just started first grade. I’m doing a reading assignment, and am – unusually - nestled next to him on the sofa. He has his arm around me, and he is helping me sound out the words in my Catholic school primer. I was feeling a bit traumatized by school. There were 49 other unseasoned school-children in my first-grade classroom with a teacher who had taught high school the year before, and didn't know the first thing about calming young children. I was unsure of the rules and unable to do many of the things I thought the teacher was expecting me to know, though she was probably just testing our academic skills. My father is uncharacteristically tender, and I lean in to him. I soak in his bigness, I feel safe. That is the moment I think of when I think “Daddy.” Even now, 60 years later, it brings tears.

So today I found this ring in the bottom of an old jewelry box, an opal ring with one small emerald chip – there used to be two – which my father had made for me while at the height of his lapidary hobby in the early 1970s. I hadn’t been able to wear it all of these years. But today I unaccountably slid it on my finger. Then I went to Quaker meeting for worship.

In the silent, waiting worship God showed me that I had taken a cutting from the family tree and transplanted it into good soil, tending it and fertilizing it. I had not cut out my parents from my life. I had taken a cutting from our shared family tree! This new tree has so much more health than the tree from which I took the cutting. What I understood this morning in worship, in a way I had not before fully appreciated, is that the healing that has occurred in my transplanted branch of the family tree has also helped to heal the whole family tree, because that lineage lives on in the new tree. Christ has helped me, through the teaching of a Buddhist monk, to reconnect with that moment on the couch when my father helped me to read, and to feel the truth that this loving Daddy also lives within me, alongside the wounded Daddy parts that have and continue to be healed.

I can now wear the ring he gave me, and feel gratitude to God and to Life for returning my father to me, for the ongoing healing of a lineage in me and my children and their children. I don’t know if I will replace the lost emerald chip. It reminds me of the wounded Daddy who could not always be a good Daddy to his daughter. But it sits alongside the light-filled brightness of the opal - his inward desire to be good, to be tender, to be patient. I am grateful for this Buddhist teacher, who learned how to open his heart to the Daddy within and is teaching me to do the same. I am grateful to the Christ, who led me in learning to love my children, and who led my brother back to me, and me to him. I am grateful to the Creator, who “don’t make no junk.”

May your new year be filled with the transformations that expand hearts and minds. Blessings to you.