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Shame

We aren’t born with it, but we acquire it when we’re young. We grow up with it. There it is, in the sound of mother’s voice, of daddy’s voice, in the hushed voices of elder siblings, who have inherited it, like we have, from the air, from the air we are breathing, the air that Momma and Daddy are breathing. We inherit it,just as they inherited it.

And the generations before them.

Shame. Shame arrives on our bodies, in our bodies, in our organs, from these willing people, who love us, but who hate the shame that inhabits them, and so they try to shed it, shed it anywhere – on the couch, at the store, in the nursery, in the kitchen! But still, shame remains. It sticks to the folks, it has stuck to them for generations, and it sticks to us, catches on us – on our soft places with willing contours – just like it caught onto them.

I know shame well, like a well-known sister, who’s been in my life for as long as I can remember. I know her feel, the sound of her voice in me, the whining and the sass that come along with her, that came along with her when she set herself into me. She was fleeing, I’m sure of that, fleeing someone else – Mom, likely, and Dad, and probably even my well-loved teachers in the school I walked to, dutifully, every day.

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Vienna, November, 2016, photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert

No one wanted it, and so they kept throwing it off, onto me, onto you, onto any unknowing partner in the crime of shame. We all got it. We all ate it, whole, uncooked, unbaked, unwashed. We took it in, until it began to cover us, that slime, and after a while, we began to think this shame was us.

Then we were lost in it, and some of us are still lost in it, drowning in the shame, the grimy, greasy stuff that didn’t belong to the ancestors, and doesn’t’ belong to us. But still, we hold onto it, willingly, because if this is me, then this all I’ve got, and I don’t want to let go.

One day, after I thought I was free of her – after all, I’d named her, like some scary apparition in the dark – I was talking to a friend in a well-lit room, near the sea – I could hear the crash of the waves in that lovely place – and something was said, I said it or my friend said it, and – there she is again, caught on something in me, a word, a memory that flitted past, the sound of a voice, a feeling – and I couldn’t shake her. Knowing her, making room for her, giving her a name was not enough. I learned that.

Sometimes, now that I’m older, I feel her still. But not often. If I had not left her behind, I wouldn’t be able to speak as I do today, or lift my eyes into the eyes of everyone I meet, like I do today. I wouldn’t be able to sleep as quietly as I do. I left her somewhere, maybe in some therapist’s office or in an old journal, or spilled on the floor of some healer’s dark and quiet room, but part of her is here, still. When I’m angry or seething or tired or dismayed – sometimes then, she arrives, again.

Her sticking power is not what it used to be.
All of this came to mind when a friend told me she had not been raised with shame. Hmmm, I thought, I hope that’s true. Maybe it’s true. Is it true? It got me wondering. I began to remember, then, my long association, my long knowing, my ancestry and all that have inhabited this same dna. Did we have some hooks in us that others did not, do not have? I don’t know. I used to wonder. I used to be envious of those who used their shame in another way, who got ahead with it. I couldn’t. I can’t.

Maybe I learned to love her, or at least, not to hate her. Maybe I have learned to simply acknowledge her when she arrives, as if to greet an old friend, someone who I no longer have anything in common with, and our only connection is a slender thread, a memory, not even a longing.

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“God found it!”

I was Mom’s caregiver in the last years of her life, responsible for her care and safety.  She was still living in her apartment in Milwaukee in early 1998 when our good friend Joanne, who would look in on Mom and receive her frantic phone calls – more frequent – when she was disturbed about something, let me know that Mom couldn’t live alone anymore.  Her short term memory was affecting her ability to be independent.

In August of 1998 Jeff and I, along with a group of faithful friends and relatives, met in Milwaukee to pack up Mom’s apartment, to move her to Oakland, California, where we lived.

This story has a prelude, more interesting than the move itself.  I had spent months preparing a place for Mom to live in the Bay Area.  As a pastor, I’d visited lots of folks in assisted living homes.  Often these homes were single family homes in residential neighborhoods, reconfigured to accommodate a few elderly folks who needed some level of personal care.  I’d also discovered, and had had Mary Bahlert, my mom, named the recipient, of a grant – $1,000,000 – for a person who needed a retirement home and did not have the resources, at a wonderful continuing care facility in Oakland.  Still, I needed a back-up plan. I kept looking. 

Just in case.

I walked through many of the local assisted living homes, growing more and more distressed at how shoddy the rooms were, how meager the furnishings.  The search was disheartening.  One day, as I was getting ready for the day, I said a frantic prayer: “God, you’ve got to come through!”

Within a few minutes, as I made final preparations to leave the house, I decided to check the yellow pages once again, under “assisted living” – just in case.  That day, when I opened the book, its pages fell open and my eyes set on a place I had not noticed before:  Matilda Brown Home, Oakland.  I called the place immediately; within a few minutes, Jeff and I were on our way over for a look.

Matilda Brown Home was a beautiful building with beautiful gardens, a beautiful room set for the next meal, an activity center on the second floor, and a few empty rooms, waiting for new occupants – women only.  There was a well-appointed parlor with a grand piano, with windows that looked out on the gardens.  The staff changed infrequently.  I talked to the director and learned that Mom, with her limited resources, would be able to afford a room there.  I left that day with some hope in my belly.

When we moved Mom to Oakland, I did try to have her live at the large continuing care facility where I’d received the generous grant.  After 3 or 4 nights, the director called me in for a meeting to tell me that it didn’t look as if Mom was able to come in as independent, a requirement for the grant.  Jeff and I sat in the meeting; the director and Jeff waited for my answer.  I said: “let’s go over to Mathilda Brown.”

No photo description available.

Within the hour, we’d secured Mom a small room with a shared bath on the first floor, the single window overlooking the driveway and the back of Oakland Tech, at Mathilda Brown Home.  Within days we moved Mom into that little room, which we furnished with a few of her furnishings, and where she would die.

During her first weeks, I visited Mom often.  I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but now I know that I was waiting for the place to be a fit – for her – and for me. During each visit, at some point, she’d look at me and say: “I’m trying, Mary Elyn.”  We didn’t say anything else about it, although I knew it was my last hope for her to have a nice place to stay. I expect that she knew it, too.

One day, we sat in the garden, enjoying the afternoon together.  Mom turned to me and asked: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?”  “God found it,” I said.

Mom lived at Mathilda Brown for another 2-1/2 years before she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and put on hospice care – which she received at Mathilda Brown Home.  Each time I would visit, at some point, Mom would look at me and ask: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?”  “God found it,” I would say.  Her question assured me of her happiness. 

During one of our last visits, when Mom could no longer get out of bed, I sat on her bed and we chatted.  We talked about ordinary things, as we usually did. Then, Mom looked at me and asked: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” Before I could answer, her face lit up and she said: “I know!  God found it!”

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The long, long letting go…

“Do not go gently into that good night. Rail, rail against the passing of the light.”  Dylan Thomas

I’ve always been unable to let go gently and with acceptance.  I haven’t trusted.  I had a late start, I think, into adulthood.  In a way, I was in denial – denial that the season of being a child had passed, that life as it was, with its good and bad, was moving on. When I had left the life of my childhood to begin my new life, I was energized.  I loved going to college, loved going away to begin my first career. Hesitant as I’d been to move along, to begin, life offered its gifts to me.

When my father died, I asked the minister to read the words of Dylan Thomas at his funeral.  I was having a hard time accepting Dad’s passing.  Before he died, my father had a “near death experience.”  The hospital staff brought him back to life – I think this was in the days before patients were offered a DNR declaration – and when I next visited him, he told me he had seen Christ, and he was not afraid.  His words were his assurance that he would go gently into that good night. 

I’ve lived my life begging God to take notice of me: “here I am, over here, with my needs!” And all the time, like all of creation, I am in God. I am swimming in God, in the Universe, in the vastness of creation. In spite of my willingness to let go, to step into that perfect state of freedom, of being, I am of the Universe, of Creation. The Universe, the Creation is of me. I forget. I forget. I am not separate, on my own. I forget.

I love to watch the tree outside my front window.  When I sit quietly and look at the tree, over the years, I see it, as if it is lit from within.  And it is.  It’s essence, it’s “tree-ness” shows in each leaf, in each branch, in the color of its trunk, in the way it shapes itself in the world.  And sometimes, when I’m able to see, that tree is lit from within.  Its essence shows itself in each moment.

photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 2021

I witnessed my mother’s death – a gift, to be sure.  I entered her room after a night away, just as her breath was changing and she began to pass.  I’m sure she had waited for me.  I said:  “I’m here now.” In that moment, she began the final letting go.  I watched her take her final breaths.  And as I stood, watching, crying, calling out to her, I saw that light, the light I see in the tree, the light that comes from within.

I see now that my parents – not “good Church people,” each gave me a gift at their passing.

And sometimes, I see that my life, like theirs, like all of ours, is part of the long, long letting go that is the Holy, that falls into the Holy.