This is a project that has been burning a hole in my heart. We all sing our pure and shaky and earnest songs, to ourselves, our kids, our pasts. We sing because we need to hear our voices out loud, because it gets lonely sometimes, because it hurts, because the joy cannot fit in our bodies. Mothers are always and never alone. I want to focus on the never part. I want to hear the voices together. I want to start a chorus.
It’s only when we are turned inside out, that our darkest parts finally meet the sun.
The Serenity Prayer never took hold with me, no matter how I begged it to. I tried it for years, and each time I spoke the words I got tangled on the wisdom I was supposed to have, in knowing the difference. I could accept things most peoples’ sense of dignity or preservation would abandon immediately. I could have the courage, to bear all these things I accepted. But to know how to filter all that dark and light and in between – that was every color of the prism at once, burning my retinas, flooding my mind. So I wrote this, my own prayer. I say it in my sleep, to the dark, to the banishment of it, because oh, how I want to meet the sun.
If I want to save someone, I give them words as a ladder out. When I need to save myself, I make metaphors. I turn myself inside out in my head a few times a day, skin peeled away, primal light leaking out to meet sunlight. When it feels like my breath might stop without willing the in and out, the words give me a reason to remember. They let me spill before I break open. I will spill for you too.
The same voice that pulls you under can lift you out. We can’t talk about the dark without talking about light.
Years of my life have gone dark. The memory repels me. The sour smell of skin against my own, equal parts comfort and cringe, remembering who I was and don’t recognize. I don’t even want to touch it for fear it will suck me in – like that song you hate that plays on a loop in your head. Parts of me still want to listen, feeling the darkness and lightness of every mixed up second, not knowing which to choose. This is life, being life, I thought. There are stretches I want to push away into a closet that will barely shut, to forget about, empty yet taking up too much space – a balloon whose helium leaked and left no memory of the party, a giant parenthesis around us. We were suspended in a beautiful black hole of time going too fast, happy and hurting, found and lost beyond searching. But the dark got me here, emptied but with a new space to fill, the old keys burning a hole in my pocket. Our life is by nature unprecedented, as we move through new rooms.
Some days I can’t conjure my brother’s face for anything. Then I look in the mirror and see him in my jaw, the smile I force that actually works, the post-tear swelling of my eyes. We can’t talk about love without talking about the constant threat of hurt. I can’t really forget the past, unless I want to forget faces with it. All this juxtaposition brutal and beautiful, lies in blood and petals at our tired feet. My little boy says “black is all the colors at once.” Not exactly true, but like his mama, he spins those metaphors to make sense of it all.
I have blinded myself with eyes squeezed shut. Because the dark needed to do its battle. So I found the night, let it in, stopped pretending it was a sunny day when it was pitch black three in the morning. Turned off the lamps, let my eyes adjust. Let them do the hard work they were meant for. I’ve made a life barking up wrong trees, hoarse and lost. So lost it became a place I found. I want to know the forest now. It won’t care or love me back; I won’t expect it. It will be what it is. And maybe teach me to do that very thing. Enough of this folding in a thousand times and shrinking and slow dripping from a leak I can’t even find because it feels like I’m ripped open, everywhere. But ripped open can mean unleashed – bare, new, flooded with light. And hurt can mean the very start of healed. I became a fish who had swallowed its tail. I was afraid and the fear made its own fears, that swallowed the ones I was afraid of. All this feeding my feelings, when what I needed was the air around me.
When we finally see ourselves we don’t need a mirror.
Let starving minds find words to feed them – metal shavings to a magnet. Be the truth of you. No matter how much you’re convinced you’ve built this thing on your own, for the first time in history, toiling and wringing your hands in the dark – you haven’t. For the good and the bad. When the lights go on, and they will go on, you will look around and you won’t be alone. Because we all want to be moved – moved up, beyond, out. But through it, is the only way to be free from it. Pain plants us, love roots us. Every day I try harder to see and act upon that distinction. There must be an impetus, a spark, the ache to get us up into a new position – stuck in bed, our backs gone numb. That mystery shift that jolts us up, that cracks our tear crusted eyes, that moves our hands to draw the curtain. Enough. We are enough. Swollen and shamed, starved and too full of too much, as long as your head is out of the sand and your feet are moving forward, you are braver than many.
We may even have to fight ourselves for peace. A knockout, hair in fists, earrings ripped, bloodied and desperate, sweaty, panting, heartbroken fistfight. This may be a living oxymoron. Or maybe I’m just being real about my own resistance. You can only breathe your way through a tornado if you stand in the eye. We fight demons by fighting demons. I used to think walking away was the best fight. And I realize now I was too tired to battle it out. I can’t unknow it now. I flipped on the lights.
We are all so close to desperate. Or swimming in it. You aren’t alone in it; I am trying to believe I’m not. This is the optimism we hold on to. That the human condition is a condition of ‘we’:
One friend in crisis with a child, my own mom telling her, “don’t listen to the pushers of tough love.” That these moments are her only moments of regret with my brother in his dark war. That all we have to give is that love, so let it be pure and your own. Another friend in the middle of a divorce whose husband took his life: “fuck it all, is all that saves you.” Quiet the voices and listen to your own, is what she tells me as she lives a new life. Be the person you need to be, to be the mother you need to be. My soulmate, honorary big sister, taking my hand through the loss of home and husband and hope, now facing her own divorce, in a blink we never saw coming. Be new, she shows me, be a badass, have a new ring made for your middle finger.
Perhaps the antidote to darkness is not light, but release. I make these notes, write them before I have a chance to polish their sharp edges, send them off to friends who feel wired to my heart through this surgery of life, without a lick of second thought. I’ve moved past the self-edit. I want to catch the truth with my hands, and free it when it’s still beating, writhing from my own body to yours. If we are as sick as our secrets, then may we work them out of our systems, get them out and into the light. The same voice that pulls us under can lift us out. I wake up nearly every night to my own S.O.S., the words come like miracles, the voice delivering them, my own. Have it be your own too. It’s there, curled up in dark corners, waiting to find you.
The current is swirling again. The eddies that are supposed to offer some reprieve, in the darkest times, still churn, more gently, but clearly echoing the undercurrent of the troubles in my heart. Breathing through the doubt, reaching for the reasonable answers, pushing through the voices that speak of unworthiness, of fear, of weakness, of rejection, has become my greatest challenge. Here, I sputter…surrendering to the notion that the waves will eventually carry me to clarity, and that I will find the surface if I just push off the bottom and allow myself to trust that it exists as it always has.
Jane Eyre says to her little French student, “Remember, Adele, the dark is just as important as the light.” Jane then reaches over, takes the paint brush from the young girl’s hand and deliberately gives a heavy shadow to the portrait being painted. And indeed, the portrait comes alive with the shadow. Without our shadows, we are not fully alive.
“Are you Jennifer Downer?”
“Yes, that’s me”
“I have some bad news. Your father has passed away,” he said.
It was a very thoughtful suicide really. He had purchased the handgun in July, they told us. He had called 911, told them what he was planning to do & asked that they send an experienced officer, not a fresh one who had not witnessed this kind of scene. He waited until the sheriff arrived at the front door before he pulled the trigger – to ensure that it wasn’t one of us that found him. There were spread sheets, and documents, and instructions laid out neatly around the house. Quite considerate.
the face that looks back at me in the mirror is hardly recognizable. what has become of the strong beautiful woman i once was proud to be? the lines around my eyes have become pronounced and the dark circles seem permanent. the simple muscle tone that once was overlooked and taken for granted has now become soft and life-less. nail beds that have clearly been neglected for the first time in what seems like forever. things so trivial i know, but that i swore i would never let go of. but the most noticeable change, my eyes. stone black, portraying a sense of hopelessness and an indefinite pain as if they are an actual reflection of my heart. they look empty. once full of so much light and love now they seem dark and lost. who am i? who have i become? oh how i loathe this time, a time of reflection when i am able to take a minute and truly look at myself. “how did i get here?” i will often ask. and questions like this almost always lead to visions of that day. the day that changed my life forever. that day when my world that was once so simple and safe came crashing down.
motherhood has become something new to me. a fresh breath of air so desperately needed, yet at the same time a weight that holds me down unable to breathe, to live, to feel. oh to feel, i mean to truly feel. this past year has been nothing short of raw and intense feelings, and when under such an emotional war it’s almost impossible to exist without desperately clinging to a state of numbness for survival. i miss feeling.
when i look at myself now, in this season of life, i see a woman, who so desperately wants to be alive again. a woman who wants to believe in love and goodness. a woman who although endured a painful truth, is constantly looking for hope and clings to it like its the very life preserve that pulled her out of her dark truth some time ago. i am a woman full of wounds, yet still i stand.
Even though I called them it from the moment they were tucked inside my womb, they were never really mine. The older my children become–the more I am in this amazingly humbling role of Mama and then Mommy and then Mom and even, on some days when emotions run amuck, Mother–the more I realize they were never really mine. They are on loan…entrusted to me for a short time to nurture, protect, advocate, love, pamper, support, guide, discipline and disciple…and then they are supposed to be sent on to who and where they are meant to be. Yet, they have become my Achilles’ heel…that one sensitive place in my heart that will forever be vulnerable.
In the darkness of having a child suffering with cancer, this truth is painfully yet lovingly seared into my heart. There is Someone who loves him more. There is Someone to whom he really does belong. There is Someone whose goodness is never changing in the midst, in spite of and even if… My son was never meant to live on this earth, in this way, forever. None of us are. That is my Light in this darkness. That is my Hope when I feel the constriction of my throat. His Light is like a beacon in the dark abyss that wants to drown me. The gratitude is deep that it only takes a little bit of Light to illuminate the darkness…to show me it is okay to let go…or hold on.
Please do not misunderstand me…to live in hope while everything seems dark is not an easy task. It makes for an intense cerebral game of thrones…which thought will win the prize this hour? Live in the moment. Do not dream too far ahead. The hope is not in what I see but what I believe to be true. Do not be afraid of the darkness or the pain…it is a part of living. I live with tears ready to burst from the rims of my eyes at any moment; yet, seek deep belly laughs daily. They both co-exist in my world lately and it is okay.
My darkness has taught me to trust deeper in Him…to release the chains of control I gripped so tightly…to gratefully offer back to Him what He has given to me…to know that the pain is never wasted…and there is an immense amount of freedom in that.
all the keene girls wear lipstick. or rather, most do. okay, at least my mama, and her own. when the babies were around, my grandmother was sure to wear her deepest berry shade, so that when she grinned into their faces and singsonged, “wynken, blynken and nod, sweeheart”, the big eyed round faces of her grandchildren were sure to smile back.
i usually go with an orangier red.
when she first told me about being committed, my grandma’s voice was factual and breezy all at once. like a weather woman. as if i already knew (i did not); like being locked away in a mental hospital, six electroshock therapy treatments, (six children left at home), was as common a story as the ones about how great she used to look in a bathing suit or the time the she first met papa, on the beach.
i remember her face in the lamplight, comfy in her corner recliner; (the same one she swooned over regis and heckled kathie lee from); calm, still beautiful, serene even, as she remembered trying to escape, hiding in the morgue. IN THE MORGUE. how they found her from a trail of her menses. how they’d taken her teeth.
it was like a great retelling of a horror film. i was transfixed and aghast. it seemed impossible.
ours was the family that my friends found movie-like. my mother and four sisters all lovely, all talented, all a bit bigger than life. the photo of them setting up a faux french restaurant for their parents anniversary; one aunt the quiet designer, one the sultry entertainer, the two youngest, servers in chiffon aprons, my mom the maître d’. we kept this up as extended family, putting on productions each new year’s day. many years we were together; all six of grandma’s kids and their own, and we’d dress up in exaggerated costumes, usually performing a little ditty, depending on the theme. the “hawaiian” year, my dad and uncle wore leis and a paper canoe and sang don ho’s “tiny bubbles”. the year we were musicians, my mom was (of course) tina turner, belting out about what love has to do with it, and my siblings and i lip synched the B-52s. just a few years before the night grandma told me of losing her mind, the theme was “japan”, as several of us had hosted exchange students, so honored their recipes, wore gifted kimonos, and ate cross legged on the floor. grandma showed up as a sumo wrestler.
it was all bright lights and terribly entertaining. just don’t look behind the curtain.
there are pages and piles of these images in my memory. it’s taken years to suss out the contrast of these pictures with the truth that lived behind them.
when grandma shared her story, the impressions of the family i was from turned watery; a mirage. more secrets, many still held closely. some of us would like them never to be spoken. some of us are learning to set them free.
secrets need the dark to grow.
as the truth (littered with dangerous men and deep instability) has leaked out slowly like a stain, i’ve been afraid the brutal would eclipse the beauty. we’ve been taught that mentioning the monsters in the room will wake them up. i thought we were never supposed to let the dark in, but maybe we are just supposed to beam light right in it’s big ugly face.
i still crank my head away from roadkill. i still let out the bugs. i still want to know everything, every story, but wish much of it wasn’t true. i’ve seen every episode of “the walking dead” and managed only to catch a couple zombies in the kill. i am excellent at closing my eyes or hiding my face. which is funny, since i think i hate the darkness, but gift myself just that, rather than seeing the ugliness that light sometimes reveals.
now when i slide hibiscus red on my lips and miss the same part on my bottom lip that my mama and maybe grandma did too, i think of all the opera voices and the dressing up, the grand hilarity, the making everything pretty. and i think of a broken young woman with no safe place to shout, of little girls asked to be quiet. i try to stare deep into the depths, and know i’m channeling the complexity of being “us”. all that’s true is that we’re here. that we are made up of the twilight and the sunrise, the nightmares and the daydreams all together.
light needs the dark to be noticed. darkness can be survived. one seems to need the other to be recorded. so it’s okay, necessary even, to look straight in the face of both. and peering back is not just who you are, but the legacy of the dance of these things in the people you love, all swirled together. composing your life.
Soon though, the scent of my mother begins to make me uneasy. Sick almost. It’s too real, as though she should be standing here, but isn’t. This physical presence is so near, too near, when I smell that red comb. Soon it gives me a stomach ache and I have to stop visiting it.
Struggling, like a fish in a net
When the harsh, bloody mornings come back
Light stark smacks you in the face
You’re sure you can’t. You’re sure all you need is to curl in the damp
Because no one knows the half of it
And can’t ever get it, even if you try to explain and detail line by line (But who wants that kind of sodden sadistic play by play)
So you’re left again
Alone with the weight no one else can bear for you
Flapping wings tied down fins busted and bruised
You know there are upsides
And up days,
Shiny balloons to lift you sometime
But in the dark
All you wish is that everyone would stop talking about them.
Recently my four year old and I had a conversation about bottomless pits.
I whispered into your ear the other day as you came and sat on my lap like you always do so that I can give you tickles on your back and arms, “I am so sorry that I am failing you.” It was completely heart felt and uttered out of desperation. Desperation that I have been feeling for some time now. I no longer have the answers; maybe I never did. I always thought as your mother that I knew exactly what you needed. You have never uttered a spoken word in your entire life and yet, I thought I knew.
I find myself reaching, trying so desperately to find new answers. I want to help you, but I don’t know how. You are getting older and this new road we are walking down just seems so very foreign to me. It is so very dark and uncertain and I’m scared. Sometimes I feel like I cannot breathe. Help me son. Show me.
When you bite your knuckles and punch your head out of frustration what is happening? Are you mad, sad, frustrated, anxious? I cannot imagine what it is like for you to have your thoughts locked in your head without being able to put words to your emotions. Do you think with words? I do not know. No one does. I am so afraid that one day you may have a pain or urgent request and I won’t be able to help you.
When you wake countless times in the middle of the night did you have a bad dream? Are you thirsty, hungry, cold, scared? I am so sorry that out of my selfish need to sleep all I want to do is scream. It must be hard for you too.
The obsessive compulsive behaviors make me insane; clothing on and off, on and off again, and again, and again… is it ever going to stop? So many unanswered questions. We have to keep everything locked down. The doors, cabinets, drawers, you will eat yourself into oblivion if I let you. Do you ever feel full? Surely you could not still be hungry. You have no concept of danger. I fear I will lose you. Twice already you have gotten out the front door and in a panic we have found you down the street, once completely naked.
Stop. Don’t judge.
Unless you are living this, I promise you do not understand, and that’s ok, how could you? I never imagined this either. Depression can be a bitch.
I’ve always thought, “As long as you are happy that’s all that matters.” Now I wonder if it’s enough. Is it enough to just be happy? So many labels: autism spectrum disorder, mental retardation, chromosome disorder, epilepsy. I’ve tried your whole life to not define you by those labels and in many cases have succeeded.
You are a beautiful, unconditional loving young man and there are so many light-filled amazing things that make you uniquely you. When my days are at their darkest, I try to focus on the good. I’m fighting for you Matthew, I’m fighting, but lately my fight is a distant cry from what it used to be.
I let ghosts take up residence in my being.
I believed this was Love.
spirit nestled in with spirit
fantasy of merging and fusion
It was a sickness
To believe that I am not Enough.
There was immense suffering.
falling from heights
I take up all the space in my being.
I don’t know what it is about the dark that fascinates me, as much as it scares me.
I am not sure of it is the shadows or what they hide.
The stories , the history, the unknown and the yet to be known.
My dark, my shadows, my stories are as present as everyone else’s, just there in the background.
Over the years stories have revealed themselves from their depths.
Some…memories, arriving unannounced , uncalled for, sharp and painful. Others woefully tender , revealing a story so deep and so gut-wrenching that it can only revealed in parts and never completely.
As I spend more and more years on this earth , I realise I am not alone with my shadow stories, we all have them.
They companion us all, making our lives richer, giving us more to talk about , dream about , write about and weep about.
I don’t fear the shadows as I once did.
I know now ,they add to our story, our life story, the one thing we have that is all ours, that no one can take from us, the only thing we have at the end, and all we take when we go.
So I stay fascinated by the dark, I continue to be drawn to and photograph the shadows and their stories.
Life is a seesaw, the blade of balance never quite right. Fear of failing, suffocating all her might.
Taking refuge in corners, tucked far away, telling others to go, but secretly wishing they would stay. Hiding hurts and failures, stories never told, hoping the pain would dissipate, rather than unfold. Her voice and self crushed by the words and actions of others, no shoulder to cry on, not even her mother’s.
There’s safety in seclusion no one has a say. Hope and dreams can flourish or slowly drift away. Broken promises and never quite belonging, scarring her soul, carving an empty longing.
She filled it with “stuff” and temporary pleasures, each time less fulfilling, void beyond measure. She fixed her sight on creating art, telling her story, just not from the start. Picking up the pieces, crafting a new beginning, this is life, her way of winning.
there was a time as a child that I was very afraid of the unknown. but having looked into the abyss head on, it has taught me that roots rarely grow above ground. there is mystery in blackness, a germination of soul and consciousness, realizations of our possibilities and the fear of physical pain and loss. light cannot exist without the dark, but there is no satisfaction in the grey areas, and without this variance, there is no reflection.
I’m new here.
I just earned my Mommy badge three weeks ago, and have since been in the throws of endless spit up, farts you can’t trust, and having my hands pooped in. I’m learning about things that bring comfort to this beautiful creature, and feeling my heart melt in the newness of my momhood when just the sound of my voice or my cheek next to hers can settle her. Many middle of the night tears have been shed as I struggle to find our own unique rhythm in breastfeeding. My insecurities, and self doubt have reached new lows that have the power to break me in some moments. God, it’s so hard. It’s hard to be needed so fiercely, but it’s also so wonderful. The fact that no one can comfort her like I can is both suffocating and divine. “It’s all about the little victories!” they say to all of the new parents, and I finally understand that concept entirely. I am now a believer that the little victories along the way have the ability to fill the darkness with an abundance of light. Those little victories are rich and bright and filled to the brim with delightful enchantment, and I got to watch one of those little victories as a quiet onlooker last night. Music. It’s been such a joyous element that connects my Dad and I on a profound level. There are so many songs that have the ability to take me back to such vivid and wonderful moments of time spent with him. So when I come around the corner from doing Sunday dinner dishes to take in the sight of my Dad holding our sweet sweet Josephine, and Van Morrison’s Moondance album is playing on the record player, I just have to pause. I have to let my eyes fill with water as I remember dancing with him in the living room of our old house as a little girl. I let myself think about years down the road when I tell her this story, and years after that when she tells this story, and years after that when maybe she finds herself dancing or swaying with her own baby. The little victories, they truly do heal the battle wounds of all the poop, and all the pee, and all of those late nights and tears and darkness.
In a momentary fog, I stand on thin, dark ice.
The frigid pool below is fear.
I begin to slip.
I hear my baby crying, only he’s not a baby anymore.
It reverberates in my ears.
Make it stop! I yell.
Then I hear the drum of the door slam.
More shrill crying.
A good memory is overwritten.
And takes away one without a picture.
I regret the sound of my beastly reprimand.
I feel a bitter chill: it’s resentment.
My stomach whirls in melody.
The endless refrain. If only I’d refrained.
These notes wrap a dark veil all around us.
The crescent moon is waxing.
It reveals a river connected to streams.
At first unseen, but THERE.
I feel a hug, long and tight.
A new lens rests in my hands
One that may connect us more deeply.
Looking through, I see light, and find myself again.
I don’t like the dark but just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean I don’t have to deal with it. The dark is uncertain. It requires me to blindly put one foot in front of the other without knowing where I am stepping or where I will end up. It’s a place where fear and uncertainty thrive. A place where that voice in my head is constantly yelling “Go back to where you started.” or “Lay down, curl up in a ball and just give up.You are not worthy and completely over your head.” It asks me “who do you think you are?”
When I am in this ugly, dark place, if I look really, really hard, I can find bits of light that illuminate my path just enough to give me the courage to take just one more step. One. Step. At. A.Time. One. Step. At. A.Time. One. Step. At. A. Time. Pushing though fear. One. Step. At. A.Time. One foot in front of the other, Eventually the dark gives way to light. It always does. Always. The light may not always stick about for long but after being in the dark, the light is the most refreshingly, peaceful, joyful relief I have ever felt. So as much as I hate the damned dark, I am grateful for the perspective it gives me.