What My Mother Taught Me
(Starting to Re-member)
When I was around nine or so, my family moved from a suburb right outside of a big city to a town about an hour and a half away, into a house with five acres including a pond. For most of the next nine years we lived there, my mom set about trying to return most of our acreage into as close to a native environment as possible, reintroducing a lot of indigenous species, particularly prairie plants, and trying to weed out invasives. It took years but eventually thistles and white clover gave way to flowers like monarda and brown-eyed susans. I was enlisted in this work whether I wanted to be involved or not. Some of it I liked, like getting to burn the prairie, other parts, like pulling and spraying weeds, not so much.
It was the first time I developed a close relationship to a piece of land. Though I often lacked enthusiasm for the work and found much of it a chore, there was no way I could do it and not develop a kind of connection with the environment I helped create. Something became possible to me through my hands and before my eyes, I could work with life and death and recreate the landscape. My mother, intentionally or not, had given me a taste of immense creative power.
Nor was that the sole form of creation she exposed me to. She was an artist. She made paintings and sculptures. She made her own paper for a while until the chemicals involved in the process sketched her out. She made a table, drew, made jewelry and made my Halloween customs when I was young. She could make all kinds of shit. The first person who ever taught me a DIY ethic was my mom. She encouraged me to create, she bought me sketch books to draw in and clay and wire to sculpt with. She told me I could be an artist one day if I wanted.
I see so much of my mom’s influence on my life now and it pleases me and haunts me. I have no doubt that my desire to farm, to grow my own food and establish a deep relationship with a piece of land, has everything to do with what my mom showed me was possible in our old front and backyard. She took me to forests, fields and rivers, took me to the beach and taught me how to find cool stones and beach glass. When I admire a particularly majestic old tree, I think of her and how she would be able to appreciate it too. She brought me back bones, the spine of a deer found in a nature preserve, the skull of a dog found by the side a busy road, a victim of the rushing traffic. She didn’t shame me for being fascinated with dead things or insects or reptiles, she encouraged my curiosity.
She is surely a woman who helped set the way I travel and yet I tried to cast her away from me for years. While as a child I was close to her, as an adolescent and early adult I often shunned her and turned against her and it was only after her death that I could come to a real appreciation of her as a strong woman.
For the longest time I thought she was weak and I attacked her for that and tried to make her feel pain. I’d been taught that was how you showed strength, you dominated others when you could. She was too emotional, I tried to numb myself as much as possible. In my teenage years especially and continuing on into my early twenties, I aspired to the masculinity I saw displayed in the media, in books and movies. I wanted to be beyond pain and emotions, untouchable, tough. I wanted to be smart, strong and independent, I wanted to be able to hurt people, I wanted people to look up to me. Other people had hurt me a lot and I was reacting to that and how in this culture desirable human traits are mixed with traits necessary to create a class of soldiers, sociopaths and rapists, people programed to conquer and not care.
I identified a lot with brooding, angsty, angry men and teenage boys, probably because I was also full of angst and pissed off at the world and felt misunderstood and got mistaken for a boy a lot and I couldn’t seem to find a lot of female characters I could see myself in. I never really stopped looking for them, even when I was trans. The search started when I was pretty young. I remember wondering where the female warriors and fighters were. When I was older I wanted to know where all the female sick fucks were, the ones who got to be crazy like dudes got to be crazy, not slotted into some Hollywood borderline girl role. I would still rather read about a complicated dyke fuck-up then some happy lesbian utopia. I understand why women want more uniformly positive images but those tend to bore me. I can relate better to fucked up angry women with emotional problems and disturbing thoughts.
I practiced a kind of self-destruction I associated with masculinity, I hurt myself to try to make myself stronger. This was connected with trying to shut down my emotions. I didn’t want to feel emotions that made me weak but I thought if I exposed myself to pain, as much as I could stand, I was improving myself. I started out with hot wax, heated up in a metal container over a flame before I poured it into the palm of my hand, where I’d heard the skin was extra-thin and sensitive. I moved up to burning myself with rope incense, creating something like cigarette burns up and down my arms, and then cutting myself with razor blades. I wanted to see what I could endure and by doing so feel powerful. Surviving that kind of pain proved I could survive pain others inflicted on me outside of my control.
Looking back now, I can see how attacking my mother was another way of hurting and separating from myself. I had to go to so much trouble to numb myself because I could be sensitive like she was. She represented what I thought was weak in myself and could not claim. I didn’t want to end up like her. In a lot of ways I still don’t. I would very much like to avoid hanging myself in a closet. I’m not totally sure what all made my mother depressed. There’s a lot I still have difficulty remembering from that time and even back then I wasn’t fully aware of what was troubling her. I knew she was depressed for years and she got worse and worse over time but I was also a self-absorbed young woman, going crazy and making up all sorts of shit to get through life.
Like how I thought I was a man and tried to live as one. A whole lot of that was about making sure I didn’t end up like my mom. We looked a lot like each other, it was obvious I was her daughter. I can still see her face in my face, see her hands in my hands. I didn’t want to see that. I took t so I wouldn’t have to see that. If I was like her I was doomed. I was weak and I was going to fall apart and totally loose my mind and be a walking corpse and then die. Because that’s how my mom ended up. I don’t know how she lost most of her personality and ended up just a body in pain, pacing around restless. I speculate that she might have been given the wrong type of drugs and they damaged her brain because I have never seen anything like that since and I’ve known a lot of severely depressed people. I can’t tell you how fucked up it was to see that happen to my own mother, it’s beyond words. Even when I was still an insecure little wannabe macho asshole, especially when I was like that, watching my mom rot mind first was excruciating. I couldn’t stand it, I saw her as already dead months before she killed herself. That was the only way I could take it. I tried to kill what of her was in me by transitioning.
I tried to pretend that I was above feeling grief. I fooled myself into thinking that because I saw her death a long way off I was already beyond it. Near the end of her life she seemed so far gone, dying seemed like it could only improve her situation. I thought that meant I had accepted what happened to her. I was tough enough to see the ugly truth and be unmoved. It astounds me now how long I was able to pull this bullshit off. I didn’t cry or feel devastated by my mom’s death until after a year had past.
When emotions started to break through, they absolutely destroyed me and I began to feel that I’d done something terribly wrong. I found I could no longer be as I was before. A kind of sensitivity and empathy was forced on my consciousness against my will. I hated it, I was fine with being a selfish asshole. I didn’t want to know or think about how my actions and words effected other people but I couldn’t not know. I felt guilt, enormous, terrible guilt, for the cruelty I expressed towards my mother and how I hadn’t tried to help her more in her final days. I felt cursed. I felt like because I had wronged her I was being punished by having my former self destroyed. I felt myself plunged into self-doubt and felt like a fake. This was during my early transition, when I was still much infatuated with masculinity. Transitioning was supposed to secure my masculine status but I found myself unable to meet the psychological qualifications as I saw them. I had too many feelings, not enough aggression and so on and I worried that everyone around me saw me as a sham man. I felt like I was disintegrating and that I deserved it. I blamed myself for my mom’s death for years.
Now I don’t think I caused my mother’s death though I still regret how I treated her. But I see how I am responsible for denying her inside myself and how doing so I wronged both of us. I can’t resurrect her but I can heal the rift I created in me between us and honor her and let what she gave me live inside of me. In doing so I give the word mother a meaning that brings it in line with power and divinity. For my religion is the growing and tending of living land and it was her who introduced me to that process and potential. She taught me how to create and to value my abilities, these words are hers as much as they are mine. She was the first woman I ever met, the original female in my life who set the chain of what “woman” can mean in motion. I am not surprised that I couldn’t claim woman for myself without claiming her as my origin. Her form is my form, so am I blessed.
One of my dreams, if and when I get land of my own to love and grow with, is to have enough that I don’t need to use it all for raising food. I want enough so that some, hopefully a lot, can be wild. And if I have the time and resources, I want to enter into the relationship my mother taught me so long ago, learning how the land used to be before it was disrupted and trying to restore some of the native plants. It would take years and hard work and maybe such dreams are unrealistic as farming itself usually takes up all of a farmer’s time. But even if I just tend to vegetables and the soil keeping them alive, the connection made in the backyard prairie of my childhood will continue on. Whatever I do, I will extend her.